Big Jim: El Cinco de Mayo

2014-05-02T00:05:00Z 2014-09-12T09:22:31Z Big Jim: El Cinco de MayoJim Griffith Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Monday is May 5 — El Cinco de Mayo. The first important thing about this holiday is this: it is not Mexican Independence Day. It commemorates the Mexican army’s victory in 1862 over a much larger and better-equipped French army, just outside the city of Puebla. Just how did that French army get there? Time for a little background, courtesy of Wikipedia.

By 1861, after a series of expensive internal and external wars, the Mexican treasury was empty. President Benito Juárez declared a two-year moratorium on the payment of interest on all debts. Mexico’s three main creditors, Britain, France and Spain, responded with threats of force. England and Spain negotiated, while France, under the rule of the expansionist Emperor Louis Napoleon, tried to conquer Mexico and turn it into a client state.

This they accomplished after a year of warfare, and in 1864 Maximilian, brother of the Austrian Emperor, ascended to the Imperial throne of Mexico, backed by French troops. He stayed there until the French, under international pressure, withdrew their army, leaving Maximilian and his Empress Carlota to their own devices. Maximilian was shot by a firing squad in 1867, and Carlota returned to Europe, where she descended into insanity.

El Cinco de Mayo, however, struck a patriotic chord among Mexican miners in California in the early 1860s, and the holiday took hold in the United States. It remains an important celebration of Mexican pride and identity. In Mexico it is not on the official national list of mandatory holidays. To be sure, schools are closed on that day all over the Republic, but outside of the state of Puebla it is no big deal. For Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the U.S., it is a time for reaffirming one’s ties to Mexican culture and ideals of liberty — with food, music, and all the other activities attendant upon a good celebration. In fact the celebration has spread among Mexicans living abroad in many parts of Europe and Asia.

Let’s finish by returning to the ill-fated Emperor and his consort. They were aristocratic innocents who had no idea what they were getting into. He actually thought he would be welcomed by his new subjects. He died bravely, and you can find him in the history books. His consort, the Empress Carlota or Charlotte, lives on in an unexpected place — the children’s playground. When my friend Carmen Villa de Prezelski was a little girl, she and her friends sang a song that began

Adiós Mamá Carlota (Goodbye Mama Carlota)

Narices de pelota. (Nostrils like a ball.)

In this way, generations of Mexican and Mexican-American children reduced Mexico’s most recent experience with foreign royalty to two sentiments:

“You’re weird; goodbye!"

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail

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