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Episode 9:

The Meaning of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo is often misunderstood by Americans as Mexico’s 4th of July or Independence Day. It’s not. In fact, Cinco de Mayo might be a bigger deal in the U.S. than it is in Mexico. 

Ross Chambless: Cinco de Mayo is often misunderstood by Americans as Mexico’s 4th of July or Independence Day. It’s not. In fact, Cinco de Mayo might be a bigger deal in the U.S. than it is in Mexico. Fanny immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in her 20s.

Lourdes Cooke generously brought her collection of Mexican folk art to share for a recent Cinco de Mayo celebration. Many of her pieces are very old, from her family in Mexico. — at Centro Cívico Mexicano


Fanny Blauer: We did celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Mexico City, mostly as a memory. But when I moved to this country, I was really surprised how big it was.


Ross: Ciriac Alvarez is a Dreamer. She immigrated to the U.S. with her parents as a child and now lives in Salt Lake.

Ciriac Alverez: I guess my personal experience being an immigrant too, I was always separated from a lot of Mexican culture. Even though I am Mexican, a lot of the history, a lot of the celebrations, we only did it in certain capacities. Like we have Christmas and we celebrate Dia de Los Reyes. But it’s not the same as if it were in Mexico. So, coming here to the states to watch Cinco de Mayo, it was interesting to watch all of these Americans – U.S. citizens – celebrate, when my family didn’t really celebrate anything. It was just like another day to us, where they ended up making a big deal out of something they didn’t what it actually was.


Ross: Luis Lopez, is Chicano, and grew up in southern California. 

Luis: My introduction to Cinco de Mayo was through events like – and it’s ridiculous – but “Cinco de Drinko” and stuff like that. In California, it’s just another excuse to party. And as Ciriac said, we would see people who were not Mexican celebrate it more than we would. But I did notice with time that Mexicanos would take advantage, like OK, we can openly celebrate our culture today.

Cinco de Mayo: A Brief History. George Stephanopoulos brings you the amazing true story behind America’s favorite Mexican holiday.


Ross: So, what is Cinco De Mayo about anyway? This is Nuevas Voces, a podcast where we examine Mexico’s history and culture through its art. This is Part 9, and in this episode, we’ll be examining a couple of paintings to explain where Cinco De Mayo comes from, and why it’s a thing today. Let’s go back to the 1860s.


Antonio González Orozco’s “Symbol of the Republic Against the French Intervention, 1972.


Ross: In 1972 the artist Antonio González Orozco completed a painting titled Benito Juárez, Symbol of the Republic Against the French Intervention.


Fanny: It is located at the Museo del Castillo de Chapultepec, in Mexico City.


Ross: It shows a battle between two armies of men with bayonets. The French Zouave soldiers wearing their garish red plumy pants on the left, and the Mexican forces, in blue and tan, on the right.

Fanny: We can see president Juárez, who was the president that established the reforms separating the Church from the state.

Ross: You can’t miss him actually, President Benito Juárez is the oversized figure in a tuxedo gripping the Mexican flag with giant hands. More on h­­­im later.


Portrait of Benito Juárez.


Fanny: This painting is confusing to me, in terms of how the separation of the class division. I see that much in this painting. 

Ross: Fanny is talking about the huddled, seemingly wretched indigenous women and the dead man covered by a white sheet in the lower corner. They’re caught up in the battle, as the Liberals and Conservative sides of the Mexican forces are quarreling, even as they try to fight off the attacking French.  

For background, while the United States was distracted by its bloody Civil War, European powers moved in on Mexico which was badly in debt. France – which was then ruled by Napoléon III – seized the opportunity to take control of Mexico. 


But on May 5 – Cinco De Mayo – a relatively small ragtag army of Mexican fighters – many of them indigenous or mestizo – managed to fend off the larger French force in the town of Puebla, during a day-long battle.   

Unfortunately for the Mexicans, the French soldiers returned to take over the country for several years. But the battle was a symbolic victory. It helped to bolster a resistance movement. And it would be remembered, at least by people in Mexico, as Cinco De Mayo.

Battle of for Puebla against the French, May 5, 1862.


Ross: Oh yeah, and that Benito Juárez guy. Well, he was more than kind of a big deal.

Susan Vogel: Benito Juárez was the first indigenous president of Mexico. He was from Oaxaca, and that was incredible.

Ross: Sort of like an indigenous Barack Obama for Mexico, but in the 1860s. He’s famous for advancing what was called the Reform Wars.


Susan: Which included ratifying the abolition of slavery.

Ross: So, Mexico abolished slavery before the United States.


Susan: Freedom of speech. Titles of nobility no longer recognized. Free tuition. Freedom of vocation.


Ross: Benito Juárez also tried to advance reforms to empower the people of Mexico and tamped down on the elite Catholic monarchists who still clung to power. 

Fanny: Benito Juárez is the first president to eliminate the reform laws to eliminate the monarchy.​


Ross: Still, Juárez was not able to keep the French from invading Mexico and establishing an emperor with Ferdinand Maximilian. Juárez and his liberal forces continued to war with the French and eventually drove them out. Maximilian was captured and killed in 1867. 

To this day, Benito Juárez is remembered in high regard in Mexico. They even named a city after him – Ciudad Juárez. In 1946, the American turned Mexican expat muralist Pablo O’Higgins even sought to compare Benito Juárez with a great American leader from the same period.       


Pablo O’Higgins’ lithograph of Juarez and Lincoln


Susan: So that is a lithograph of Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juárez.  It’s titled “Buenos Vecinos, Buenos Amigos”, which is good neighbors, good friends. 

Ross: It’s not known if Juarez and Lincoln ever corresponded.


Susan: But they were connected. They were both brought up poor. They both really worked hard to get an education. They were very revered in their countries. Both strong on the issue of being anti-slavery.


Ross: Only after the American Civil War was finished, did the U.S. turn to provide help to Juarez to drive out the French invaders – who by the way, had voiced supported the Confederate South during the war.


Susan: By the end, when the Civil War was over, the U.S. provided arms to Mexico. So, I think here Pablo O’Higgins is honoring not only the similarity between them and the shared values but also U.S. support. There is a little quip that Lincoln was 6’4”, and Juárez was 5’4”, or 4”5’ or something.


Ross: Actually, Benito Juarez was 4-foot, 6-inches tall. The shortest world leader ever recorded. 


Ross: You can see an image of Pablo O'Higgins' lithograph of Benito Juárez and Abraham Lincoln, and Antonio González Orozco’s “Symbol of the Republic Against the French Intervention", on the website for this podcast: 

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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel, Fanny Guadalupe Blauer, Luis Lopez, and Ciriac Alvarez;  Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; Music credit: Rafael Gayoso, Paco De Lucia, Antonio Pinto, Al Caiola, Antonio Reyes, and Craig Duncan.  This podcast is made possible thanks to Utah Humanities.



Engage with Us:

Tell us what you think?  Is it surprising how Cinco de Mayo is celebrated differently in the U.S. compared to in Mexico?  If you have ever celebrated Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. or in Mexico, what was your experience? 


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