CELEBRATE CINCO DE MAYO
Though Cinco de Mayo isn't the Mexican day of independence, as many might believe, it does involve the fight to preserve freedom and the struggle for recognition. As its name states, the holiday takes place on the fifth of May.
Though Cinco de May isn't the Mexican day of independence, as many might believe, it does involve the fight to preserve freedom and the struggle for recognition. As its name states, the holiday takes place on the fifth of May. The path it has taken from being a regional observance to a widespread celebration of Mexican culture is a tale that spans more than a century. While it remains largely a minor holiday in its native Mexico, Americans honor Cinco de Mayo as a joyous day of reveling, full of music, dancing, food, and drinks.
In 1861, when Mexico had been an independent state for several decades, the country was facing economic difficulties following the Mexican–American War and the Reform War, compelling then-president Benito Juárez to suspend foreign debt payments for two years. Britain, Spain, and France — to whom Mexico owed debts — responded by dispatching naval forces to Mexico in an effort to retrieve the money owed them. Britain and Spain negotiated with the Mexican government and effectively withdrew. France, however, did not.
Ruled at the time by Napoleon III, who had ambitions to restore France to a position of great power, France saw these circumstances as an occasion to expand its empire into Mexico and re-establish its presence in the Americas. So it was that in December of 1861, French troops landed in the port city of Veracruz, thus beginning the Second French Intervention in Mexico.
Batalla de Puebla
From Veracruz, the French army advanced toward the capital, Mexico City. To get there, they had to go through the city of Puebla. General Charles de Lorencez of France sent 6,000 troops to the fortified city. President Juárez assembled around 2,000 loyal volunteers and sent them to defend Puebla. They would be led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, a veteran of the Reform War. It was early May.
On the fifth day of the month, the Battala de Puebla (the Battle of Puebla) began. The French began their attack from the north, concentrating the assault on the city's forts, which held against French artillery fire. Lorencez sent infantry, but Zaragoza's men cut them down. As the battle went on, it was clear that Zarazoga's volunteers were winning. Though greatly outnumbered, they suffered only a fraction of the casualties of the French. By early evening, realizing that the battle was lost, Lorencez withdrew his troops.
The Significance of the Battle
Though France would later overtake Puebla and go on to win the war, Zarazoga's success at the Battala de Puebla represented an important moral victory for Mexico. France, after all, was a powerful military force, and many nations around the world had expected a swift French victory. Despite these expectations, Mexico prevailed for the day, providing a powerful boost of morale and serving as a symbol of the people's strength.
From Puebla to America
Shortly after the Mexican victory at Puebla, President Juárez declared that the fifth of May would be a national holiday. Its status as such would be short-lived. In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo is an official holiday only in the state of Puebla, where festivities include reenactments of the Battala de Puebla, speeches, and parades.
However, Cinco de Mayo also took root in the United States. Evidence shows that Mexican miners in California started honoring the day in 1863 as a form of patriotic support for Mexican resistance against French rule. Later, in the mid-20th century, the Chicano Movement helped to spread awareness of the events of the battle. Among the objectives of the movement was to resist oppressive social structures by endorsing a unified identity and promoting cultural empowerment. The victory at Puebla was a powerful rallying point for this cause.
Over the following decades, Mexican heritage and traditions grew to have a larger influence in the United States, and Cinco de Mayo began to gain greater purchase on the American cultural landscape. Eventually, the growing influence of Mexican culture and the symbolic victory at Puebla merged so that Cinco de Mayo became, in the view of many Americans, a celebration of all things Mexico.
How You Can Celebrate Cinco de Mayo With Bourbon
Just as the modern iteration of Cinco de Mayo is a result of the blending of Mexican and American cultural influences, it would make sense to combine a quintessentially American product, bourbon, with traditional Mexican flavors or libations. To begin, start small. For example, consider swapping out tequila in your favorite margarita recipe for a sort of Kentucky take on the popular cocktail, or kick up your michelada with a measure of bourbon for a deeper, more rounded profile.
Alternatively, consider playing around with the paloma. Said to be the national drink of Mexico, the paloma traditionally consists of only tequila, grapefruit soda, and lime juice served on the rocks. It's essentially a highball, which makes it an excellent template for a bourbon base. By substituting tequila with bourbon, you end up with something close to a brown derby but with more of a sour, citrusy element.
If you want to experiment further, try combining liquors to create a dual base spirit, which can really boost the complexity of your cocktail. Bourbon and mezcal could be a fine pair, particularly if you use it to put a new twist on an Old-Fashioned. You could also combine bourbon with tequila, lime juice, and ginger beer to create a hybrid Mexico-Kentucky mule. This bourbon-tequila combination may also work as a riff on the classic mint julep — only trying it will tell.
What began as an act of resistance against an invading army became something you can celebrate as an homage to Mexican culture and the influence it has had on the United States. The holiday has certainly changed a great deal since its beginnings in Puebla. Feel free to add your own respectful twists to the festivities with a few splashes of bourbon.