Mistress of the Mix: VIVA MEXICO!


Ten years ago. It was Cinco de Mayo, and I found myself at the Del Taco drive-through ordering a burrito (which really isn't a thing in Mexico, btw). On a whim, I asked the kid at the window if she knew what Cinco de Mayo celebrates, and she didn't have a clue.

I filled up at the gas station next door, and asked the attendant, who had a distinctly Latin American accent if he could tell me what Cinco de Mayo was recognized for. Turned out he wasn't Mexican at all (he was Guatemalan), and he didn't know either, but thought it was the day Mexico celebrated its independence from Spain.

Pero no. Mexico's Independence Day is September 16th. Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates a much smaller, sort of obscure (but also important) moment in Mexico's history. But just like the U.S. has taken St. Patrick's Day and morphed it into a wild day of binging on green beer and corned beef (and pinching), we've also taken a holiday that Mexico traditionally celebrates with a somber military parade and have turned it into a wild day of binging on tequila and Mexican food.

Tequila shot, salt and lime

I don't want to rain on anybody's margarita parade, I just think that it's good to know the reason behind your Saturday morning hangover. Because while everyone in the United States is gung ho to hoist a Corona and dance to a mariachi band on the fifth of May, how many people really understand what its all about? Well amigos, I'm gonna tell you. So crack open a Dos Equis, and get ready for a little history lesson.

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Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico's victory in one singular battle with the French.

Oui, the French. Or to point the finger more directly, Napoleon III. This guy was the nephew of the original playground bully, Napoleon I, who was exiled to a remote island after invading, conquering, or going to war with Italy, Egypt, Russia, Austria, England, Prussia, Spain and Portugal (and I probably forgot a few) during his maniacal military career. But fifty years later, his nephew was in charge of things, and decided to follow in his uncle's footsteps by taking Mexico.

Mexico had already asserted itself and separated from Spain (which happened in 1810). But there were still some hard feelings there. Which is why, more than fifty years later, Spain at first jumped on board when Napoleon III decided to stage what he called an 'intervention' (as if Mexico had a tequila problem the French wanted to help with). And so did England.

Why? Well the claim was that Benito Juarez, the newly elected president of Mexico, decided to undo some of the things that had been enacted during the previous conservative government's administration. If you like to draw similarities, it was kind of like how the new conservative led U.S. government is recalling the Affordable Healthcare Act of the last administration. Part of Juarez's plan included halting interest payments to Mexico's foreign debtors: France, England and Spain.

This was Napoleon's moment, and he seized it. He convinced Spain and England to join him in pressuring Mexico to resume payments, but most of the history books (and Wikipedia) will tell you that Napoleon was really planning to conquer Mexico all along, to get his hands on more territory and the country's rich silver resources. Napoleon sent ships. So did Spain, but when they arrived at Veracruz in March of 1862, and realized what Napoleon's plans really entailed, they broke off their little affair and went home. England followed suit, leaving France to invade Mexico on its own.

And here's the thing: they won the war. For a time (it was a short time), Juarez's government was ousted, and Emperor Maximilian was crowned. But within a few years Juarez was able to gain control again, Maximilian was executed, and the French went back to France.


But there was one battle in that war that Mexico won. It was on the fifth of May, in the colonial city of Puebla. The French had twice as many soldiers (8,000), but they seriously underestimated the passion and strategy of the 4,000 Mexicans. Long story short: David conquered Goliath. More than 450 French soldiers died in battle; only 83 Mexicans perished. The French withdrew, licked their wounds, and went on to other battles. By the way, the French came back and fought another battle in Puebla a year later, and this time they won.

Cinco de Mayo is widely celebrated in the state of Puebla to commemorate the grit and proud machismo of its people, as well as their willingness to stand up and fight against bigger forces. But since Mexico didn't actually win this war, the whole country doesn't mark this day with celebrations. Its normally recognized with a military parade and a re-enactment of the battle on a hillside near Mexico City.

How does the United States factor into Cinco de Mayo? It totally doesn't. We didn't have any part in this whole escapade. We had a pretty good excuse: Our hands full at the time with a little skirmish we called the Civil War. But once our war with ourselves was over, we stepped in to protect our ally to the south, and threatened Napoleon III with a new war if he didn't pull out his troops and go home. So he did, and eventually President Juarez was returned to power in 1867.

So I suppose we did have a part in helping Mexico establish its sovereignty once again as kind of a big brother, which kind of justifies our happy celebration of all the fun aspects of Mexican heritage on Cinco De Mayo. As long as you sweep under the rug the fact that our nation's current president is now endeavoring to build a wall between our two countries. Sigh.

There are many other wonderful aspects of Mexican culture besides pinatas, tequila and tortilla chips. Mexico's music scene has really been blossoming in the past decade, producing some very catchy, incredible music that I have just been waiting for an excuse to share with usted. Taste some of this muy sabrosa musica for yourself by pressing the play button below and checking out today's Viva Mexico playlist. If you're hip to the Mexican music scene and have some favorites of your own to add to the list, lemme know!

Valerie Ing
Valerie Ing-Miller has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.
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19 Responses

  1. Beverly Stafford says:

    My first thought reading this was Allen Sherman’s very clever version of The Mexican Hat Dance which ends with, that’s what Mexicans do to your hat.

  2. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Thanks for the history lesson, Val.  I knew the basics, but my understanding of Cinco de Mayo was definitely superficial.

    My daughters introduced me to a band from Monterrey called Kinky.  When I plucked this song off of Spotify, I noticed that they’re doing a show in SF tonight.  On the same album (Atlas), John McCrea of Cake takes the vocal lead on the song “The Headphonist.”

    Also:  Rodrigo y Gabriela.  They started out in a heavy metal band in Mexico City and transitioned to flamenco while living in Dublin, Ireland for 8 years, doing a lot of busking.  We’ve seen them at festivals a few times.  

    • Valerie Ing says:

      I love Kinky! How did I leave them off today’s playlist? I totally meant to include their song “Mas.” But after going back and listening to them again, I’ve remedied my omission by adding TWO Kinky songs, including “The Headphonist” because I think that might be my new favorite! Also added, Rodrigo y Gabriela, and a super cool song from Plastilina Mosh my daughter suggested (and she echoed your sentiments on Kinky, btw)!

      • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

        I checked out some Plastilina Mosh, and the song titles make me wish my Spanish was a lot better.  About half of “Danny Trejo” was in English, though—I had to give that a listen.  If you don’t recognize the name, this tribute song includes some pictures.

  3. Rod says:

    Tequila shooters on Cinco de Mayo? Si es muy Americana.

    For enjoyment purposes proper technique might be called for.  Whether you have 1 or 12 the spirit needs to be enhanced and fulfilled.

    1.   Low salt intake, lemon rather than lime, large shots of various tequilas solomente.

    2.   Don’t salt the rim, salt goes on the back of your hand, lick it and count to 5.

    3.   Shoot down the mescal.  Pause to enjoy the flavor.

    4.   Bite the extra juicy spring lemon and drink the juice.  Que lastima!

    5.   Celebrate life, sing and dance, kiss someone, be joyful!

    • Valerie Ing says:

      Somewhere I have a sequence of b&w photos depicting my first tequila shot experience, and I’m happy to say that I believe my technique was spot on!!!! I need to dig those out and enjoy them all over again!

    • name says:

      If you purchase high quality tequila, there is no need for salt and lime/lemon.

      I think Cinco de Mayo is a “holiday” invented by the large alcoholic beverage companies – maybe Diageo and/or Constellation Brands?

      • cheyenne says:

        Name, that is what most of the posts on articles about Cinco de Mayo are claiming, that the holiday was created by Corona.  Next they will tell us the 4th of July was created by fireworks companies.

        • Valerie Ing says:

          True, the holiday was made a lot more popular in the U.S. through marketing efforts by beer manufacturers in the 1980’s, but Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in Puebla, Mexico since 1862…and in California since the 1940’s (Wikipedia says this was because of the Chicano movement), and it slowly spread across the U.S. in the 50’s and 60’s.

          • Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

            I used to spend half of each month in south Louisiana. I’ll tell ya, the Cajun folks certainly embraced Cinco de Mayo. You ain’t heard nothin’ ’till you’ve heard mariachi music sung with a Cajun accent.


          • Beverly Stafford says:

            Since my father was born on Cinco de Mayo in 1903, our family has been celebrating the holiday for a whole lot of years.

        • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

          If it were true that Cinco de Mayo was popularized by the big Mexican macrobrewers, that would be reason to ignore the holiday out of spite. Mexican beer is pretty bad. A Negro Modelo with Mexican food, okay sure, but Corona Extra would be the worst beer on Earth if it weren’t for Corona Light.  Corona looks like the urine of a well-hydrated person, smells faintly like skunked grass or the inside of a cow’s stomach, tastes like corn syrup in water, and has the mouthfeel of a glass of air.  If you look up swill in the dictionary……

          • Richard Christoph says:

            Corona, like Bud Light or Coors Lite, is beer for folks who don’t really like beer.

            Even Mexican Bohemia and Modelo Especial though tolerable, are no match for German/Czech beers or the veritable plethora of superb American craft brews.

          • Valerie Ing says:

            Oh Steve, you’ve got such a way with words!!!!

          • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

            I got the “corn syrup in water” description all wrong—that would just taste sugary.  I meant “corn juice in water”—what you’d get if you mashed fresh corn kernels.  Sweet and corny.

  4. Thanks, Val!

    What a really fun playlist!

    And thank you for a fairly accurate account of history related to what has become known as, Cinco de Mayo.

    Quite often the Indigenous people who were the main salient in the success of that glorious battle in a war that was temporarily lost, are sadly overlooked. As well, it was the rich land land owners and corporate interests of the day that sadly sold their souls to try and make more profits under a French rule.

    On another historical point, while the United States could not actively engage during the Civil War, Lincoln did send supplies and military advisors. As a result of the United Staes active assistance the Mexicanos never forgot… and the sons and grandsons were told the stories of the U.S. support: Those sons and grandsons crossed our “borders” illegally to volunteer, fight and DIE for these United States of America in WWI and in the thousands during WWII! The promises for citizenship went largely ignored.

    Thank you, on behalf of the entire Hispanic Latino community (our largest ethnicity) for sharing the truer history… and for making it more enjoyable time for us with your killer playlist!


    • Valerie Ing says:

      I know I left a lot out of the story because I was afraid I’d lose people’s interest if I went too far down the rabbit hole, so I’m glad you brought more of the details to light. Something I found really interesting was how some of the ‘loans’ from the big 3 European countries were really more like extortion payments (the countries demanded reparation payment for harm that was done to foreign citizens who were living in Mexico like a coach driver who was kidnapped and held for ransom several times) and crazy high interest loans taken out by the previous conservative government that remind me of our 2008 mortgage crisis!!! There are so many facets to this issue that it just makes my head spin. But the truest fact is that Cinco de Mayo is a day that commemorates the grit and determination of the little guy vs. the big guy.

      Also, fun fact: Benito Juarez was exiled to the U.S. for a time. He worked in a cigar factory in New Orleans in 1853!

  5. Joanne Lobeski Snyder says:

    Thanks Val.  I can’t wait to listen to your play list.  I’ve been listening to Mexican artists for years, and tune into the Spanish stations when I get near Sacramento or L.A.   There is a whole world of song writers and singers we seldom  hear in Redding.  Great article and history lesson.

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