Updated: May 6, 2013 2:16AM
Cinco de Mayo is a low-key affair.
South of the border, the only place that makes a fuss is Puebla, where in 1862 Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza and his ill-equipped Mexican forces defeated the French troops of Napoleon III.
The historical aspect is lost on us in the U.S., where in the last two decades Cinco de Mayo has taken on the festive nature of St. Patrick’s Day.
“Americans celebrate it more than Mexicans,” said Daniel Gutierrez, who has run Nuevo Leon restaurant in Pilsen for 51 years.
We can probably thank beer and liquor companies for the parties in the USA. They realized they could make a good buck and got together with restaurants to tout the day and their brands.
It’s kind of amusing to Gutierrez that most Americans and Latinos don’t know what they’re celebrating.
“My son is 42 years old, and he doesn’t know what Cinco de Mayo is about,” Gutierrez said.
“They think they’re celebrating the independence of Mexico,” said August Sallas, President of the Little Village Community Council.
Sept. 16 is Mexico’s Independence Day, and that calls for parades and fireworks. Cinco de Mayo is tame in comparison, except that in the U.S. it has become a rite of spring, a signal that Memorial Day barbecues and summer are right around the corner.
The day, or in this year’s case the weekend since Cinco de Mayo fell on Sunday, can be pretty good for business. Gutierrez’s catering orders at Nuevo Leon more than tripled last Friday, mostly for office parties, he said. Trendy bars can cut a nice profit with mark-ups for a cold Mexican beer with a slice of lime or a margarita heavy on salt.
It doesn’t hurt that the titular phrase Cinco de Mayo has a nice ring to it. You won’t hear people calling it the Fifth of May.
The first reminder I saw this spring for Cinco de Mayo was in the April 28 newspaper. It was a coupon for Jose Cuervo tequila without mention of the holiday. Kind of subtle, I thought.
Then came radio commercials from Coca-Cola, wishing us a Happy Cinco de Mayo.
A radio ad for a Lake County restaurant said it was starting its Cinco de Mayo celebration early and invited customers to eat and drink last Wednesday.
On Saturday, The Weather Channel encouraged us via Twitter to celebrate with veggie quesadillas, courtesy of a Latino grilling chef (let’s briefly keep the non sequitur going: Do you remember when The Weather Channel was fittingly all about the weather?).
Yet, Chicago has at least one old-timer who celebrates the day’s history. Bill Luna has put together a banquet for the Mexican-American Veterans Association and a local AMVETS post 21 times since about 1983 centered on the day’s true significance.
The Mexican victory in 1862 was also vital for the U.S., Luna told me. America then was in the middle of the Civil War. A victory for France would have sent its troops north and possibly into the U.S.
“This country was in total chaos,” Luna said. “Think about how weak it was. It was an important battle for both countries.”
Yes, but only one has successfully commercialized the heck out of it.