Cinco de Mayo: More Nachos than Nostalgia

We’re celebrating what?

Leslie and Steven Ticktin are gearing up for their annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta in San Francisco, ordering the taco truck and buying the beer and tequila to entertain their social circle – parents clad in peasant shirts  and sombreros and munching on cheesy nachos as they celebrate the holiday. What’s the history? Why are we doing this?

Californians are crazy for Cinco de Mayo but what’s ironic is the day is more of a big deal in the various Mexican restaurants in the border town of El Centro, California than in neighboring Mexicali, Mexico.

El Centro is where Bay Area architect, Steven Nielsen, will be celebrating. Stationed in the town near San Diego and Palm Springs while renovating its main hospital, he was invited to join the Ticktins’ annual party, but declined, saying “Why would I come to San Francisco on Cinco de Mayo when I live right near Mexico?”

Authentic Mexican at Rosa’s Plane Food

While Nielsen might only get as far as the local favorite Rosa’s Plane Food in Calexico at the border crossing, stop by a picnic hosted by the regional medical center at a park, or take in the 150th annual Cinco concert at a local theater, it might feel more like the real McCoy because of the influence of the large Mexican-American population inhabiting the quirky border town. Better at least to be near Mexico than in San Francisco when celebrating the food and culture.

While El Centro boasts some of the best Mexican restaurants and markets on the West Coast, it also scores #1 in U.S.  unemployment. Despite its rich agriculture and potential for growth, the nondescript town of about 42,000 is mostly distinguished by box stores and homes with foreclosure signs. The best jobs are working with the border patrol and keeping your own people from crossing over illegally and into a better life. In other words, the challenges facing the population are not quite reflected in the day of recognition. Add to that the scorching climate which has earned the border town the name “Hellcentro.”

Cinco parade in Puebla, Mexico

Perhaps an opportunity to celebrate and recognize the Latino culture in the U.S., Cinco de Mayo is hardly marked in Mexico except for the state of Puebla and for good reason. This is because it is not Mexico’s Independence Day, as some falsely believe, but rather the commemoration of the 1862 Battle of Puebla, where General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin and his army of mostly Mexican Indian soldiers defeated the invading French forces of Napoleon III. It was heralded as an important movement in the American Civil War – the French prevented from disrupting the Union by setting up shop in Mexico. This might be one reason Cinco de Mayo has been embraced by Americans.

It was popularized as a Hallmark holiday by Mexican Americans in the 1970s as a way to focus on civil rights issues in Texas and California. That’s when it migrated from the southwest to other U.S. regions, becoming an annual festival of color and spirit. As writer Robert Lovato pointed out, the whole Cinco push as a start to summer happened in the late 70s and 80s by white people feeling unsafe in predominately Latino neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District and Old Town, San Diego.

Some of the feedback on the web points out the hypocrisy of celebrating Mexican culture in other border areas like Phoenix, Arizona where wars are being waged over the immigration laws. “Perfect day to wear the classic Kiss Me (but don’t deport me) I’m Mexican t-shirt,” writes one resident of Tijuana, Mexico. “I wonder if the bars in Arizona make any pesos or dollars out of this wonderful marketing scheme.”

As CNN tells us this week, you can find plenty of Mexico in the U.S. since much of the Southwest was once part of our neighbor to the South. We’re told to consider “a more authentic Mexican experience than simply ordering a margarita and chips at the local sports bar.” Make a trek to the Alamo; Check out the first Spanish settlement on the West Coast at San Diego State Historic Park; Travel to Colorado’s Fort Pueblo, incorporated as territory in 1870, home to the Chile & Frijoles Festival each September.

According to Rosa Maria Barahas, who opened her Plane Food restaurant some 23 years ago alongside a runway strip at the Calexico International Airport, it is mostly Americans who dine at her authentic restaurant on Cinco de Mayo.

“They are excited about the decorations, the beer and the special plates I make with customs from Mexico,” she says.

For border town celebrants like Nielsen, it’s just nice to be closer to the culture while honoring the day, something he might not be able to experience at a purely white bread affair in San Francisco with a taco truck parked outside.

Image: Maverick2003

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.