Oh great, it’s that time of year again. The one day a year Americans pay attention to the Mexican “culture”. It’s the one date your average American can say in Spanish. (Although I’m sure we’ve all had that student who has asked what day is Cinco de Mayo!) But why May 5? Why is this the holiday that seems to be the focus of all Spanish classrooms? Have you ever looked through a foreign language catalog? Count the number of products featuring 5 de Mayo. It will undoubtedly outrank any other cultural aspect of any country. Go to a party store. Guaranteed you’ll find a section with “Cinco de Mayo” decorations.
But why? What is Cinco de Mayo? To learn of its historical significance, I suggest reading this page, and recommend sharing it with your students.
Before we look at what it is, lets talk about what it is NOT:
It is not Mexican Independence Day. Repeat, it is NOT Mexican Independence Day. If there is just one thing that my students remember from my class, I hope it is this piece of information. I know that if they don’t continue to study Spanish, that in 15 years, they may not remember what a “reflexive verb” is, or what “-ar preterite endings” are, but if they can spread the message of what 5 de Mayo actually is, then I will feel successful.
Yes, students commonly mistake this holiday for Mexican Independence Day. And why wouldn’t they? How many products do you see being sold for that “holiday”? How many Spanish classes have a “party” on September 15? (“It’s too early in the year for a party”) Now compare that number to the number of celebrations that take place in Spanish classes for May 5th. (“It’s almost the end of the year!”) I’m not slamming those who do celebrate this holiday, but comparing the attention it receives in relation to actual important events in Mexican history.
I believe that Spanish teachers are perpetuating ignorance by insisting on having celebrations on Cinco de Mayo instead of actually informing students. What do students remember? Parties, Celebrations, fun, food, fiestas! “Well, we had a party in Spanish class, so it must be Independence Day” When the focus is food rather than information, students lose focus.
Fact is, Cinco de Mayo is not even celebrated throughout Mexico. It is celebrated more in the U.S. than it is in Mexico. Yes, Cinco de Mayo has its regional historical significance. Yes, it continues to be celebrated in the town of Puebla, Mexico. Outside of Puebla, no one in Mexico celebrates Cinco de Mayo. It is not a national holiday. However, it is marketed by companies to sell products to Americans. People who know nothing at all about its history are the first to the bar and Mexican restaurants to consume Corona, tequila, tacos, and quesadillas. Actually talk to someone from Mexico and you will get a complete different perspective on this “holiday”.
This day is not even one of the major Mexican holidays. Clearly the celebrations of Independence September 15 and 16th are at the top of the list. And after that you have November 20th (Día de la Revolución), February 5th (Día de la Constitución), and March 21 (Día del Natalicio de Benito Juárez). But I guess el quince de septiembre, veinte de noviembre, cinco de febrero, and veintiuno de marzo are not as easy for English speakers to say when they are un poco tomado.
One of the best analogies I have heard about the foolishness of making a big deal of Cinco de Mayo comes from a former colleague of mine, who was born and raised in Mexico City:
Americans celebrating Cinco de Mayo is like Mexicans celebrating a battle that the South won in the Civil War, a war which they lost.
It’s your turn. Comment below with your reactions. Do you celebrate Cinco de Mayo in your class? Do you celebrate other Mexican holidays in a similar fashion? If you asked your students, would they be able to accurately tell you what 5 de mayo is? What are your plans this year for May 5th?