The Truth About Cinco de Mayo
Aaah, Cinco De Mayo: a day for colorful celebrations, endless guacamole, Coronas with lime, and frosty margaritas. How very delightful. Thank goodness for Mexican Independence Day. Say what? Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexican Independence Day? Wait, most Mexicans don’t even celebrate Cinco de Mayo? What the heck is Cinco de Mayo anyway?
Cinco de Mayo (the 5th of May in Spanish) is a day that marks the tiny Mexican Army’s surprising victory over the powerful French in The Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. It’s celebrated here in the United States, and in Mexico, however in Mexico it’s really only celebrated in the state of Puebla. There, it’s called El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla (Day of the Battle of Puebla), and it’s more like Memorial Day than Mardi Gras.
So how did it become the holiday it is today here in the USA? Good question, and one not so easily answered.
Cinco De Mayo has a lot in common with another popular day of drinking and revelry here in the USA: St. Patrick’s Day. Neither celebration ever attained the importance among citizens in their native lands as they did among immigrants here in America. In the 1860s, Cinco de Mayo became a source of pride for Mexican Americans, just like St. Patrick’s Day did for the Irish immigrants, a day for celebrating their heritage and culture, and a day for the immigrant community to come together around their shared cultural identity.
Cinco de Mayo remained a holiday primarily among Mexican immigrant populations for decades, and eventually made it’s way into mainstream American culture starting in California in the 1940s. It slowly made its way east and eventually grew into a day to celebrate Mexican heritage and culture in America. Unsurprisingly, it grew in popularity during the 1980s, when beer companies began to use the day as a marketing campaign. Enter the fiestas, the Coronas and all that guacamole. These days, there are over 150 official Cinco de Mayo events around the country.
So, I got to wondering: What does a Mexican immigrant today think of the American version of this Mexican holiday? To find out, I got in touch with Carlos, the husband of one of my best friends from college. Carlos was born in Guadalajara, but he moved to Puebla when he was three. Remember, Puebla is the one state in Mexico that does, in fact, celebrate the day, so that means he has more experience with the holiday than most other Mexicans.
I asked him a few questions about his experience immigrating to the United States and about his thoughts on Cinco De Mayo, in particular. He was so kind to share his story and his thoughts with me as well as a recipe from Puebla. Be excited, people, because Carlos is not just a great Mexican cook, he’s a professional cook. He’s cooked in restaurants in NYC and in Chicago. He currently lives outside of Chicago with his wife, and he’s attending culinary school to become a pastry chef.
Me: What is the story of how and why you came to America?
Carlos: I came to America in 2002 when I was 21. I wanted to become an architect in Mexico, but I could not afford to go to college. I got in contact with a friend in New York City and asked him to lend me $2600 to pay a coyote to bring me into the USA. I got caught once, but I tried again. During the trip we walked for days in the desert, taking breaks in the daytime to hide from the sun under bushes. We walked mostly during the night so we could not be seen. Once I was in Texas, they sent me in a van to New York City. Because 9/11 had just happened a year earlier, the airports were too secure for me to fly. I didn't have money, so someone bought me a bag of Doritos and a Sprite, which was my only food and drink for those three days on the bus.
Me: When you think of the place that feels most like home, where is it?
Carlos: New York City, where I lived for ten years. I met very many good friends and I experienced a lot of things that I had always wanted to do.
All I ever wanted was a chance to become successful. NYC was a big inspiration to me; I wanted to be part of "The concrete jungle.” But the most exciting thing for me was to be surrounded by people from all over the world, all kinds of ethnicities and cultures in one city! Every time I go back there and think of myself, I think of how much I have grown. I breathe so deeply, like I’m coming home, and I have big smile on my face.
Me: Here in America, how do you stay connected with your culture?
Carlos: I cook Mexican food and I speak Spanish with my family and friends. I listen to music in Spanish. When I lived in NYC, there were many more Mexicans, so I was able to get traditional breads from Mexico, especially on the holidays, and to go out dancing to Latin places. Now, I also watch soccer, and we celebrate the Day of the Dead.
Me: How will you pass on your culture to your children, especially since your wife isn’t Mexican?
Carlos: When I have children I want to teach them to speak Spanish and to teach them Mexican history and culture. I plan to cook lots of traditional foods from Mexico for them, and I want them to know how to dance to Latin music and play soccer. I also want to teach them to have a Mexican sense of humor.
Me: Is cooking as a big part of your culture? Do you cook mostly Mexican food in America?
Carlos: YES, it definitely is important. In Mexico there are many different cooking styles in different regions, and they are not similar to one another. Every state you go to, you will find dishes that are original to that state only. Also, families always cook at home, fresh everyday. Fast food is very rarely eaten (not to mention expensive). Fast food only exists in malls, not close to your house. There are many street markets to buy fresh, local ingredients and you do not go to grocery stores.
Now, I often use Mexican ingredients in my cooking. I also always like to eat spicy food. I like to cook Latin foods like rice and beans and salsa a lot. But I also cook French, Italian, Thai, Indian, and Chinese food as well.
Me: What are the foods you can’t find in America that you wish you could?
Carlos: I really miss the fresh fruits in Mexico. In Mexico the fruits are smaller, but they have so much more flavor. I also miss fresh, hand-made tortillas. Additionally, I miss Mexican pastries. They are not as sweet as American pastries. Finally, I really miss my mother's cooking. I haven’t seen her in 12 years.
Me: What do you think about the holiday Cinco de Mayo in America?
Carlos: People in America think Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day, and it's not. It is nothing other than an excuse to sell beer and alcohol to Americans. In Mexico it is not a day of drinking like it is here. In Mexico it is only celebrated in Puebla, and the rest of the country does not even celebrate it at all. The way it’s celebrated here in America, I think of it as only an American holiday. I do not celebrate it here.
Me: How is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in Puebla?
Carlos: Traditionally, there is a parade hosted by many schools and colleges that march in a big avenue called Cinco de Mayo Avenue for several hours. It's more of a civic, memorial holiday. There are marching bands from the schools and students dressed in their uniforms. When people in the parade pass the governor of the state, who sits on bleachers with other government officials, the governor waves to all of them. Families may set up chairs along the parade to watch. It's kind of similar to Labor Day or Memorial Day here. I never went to watch the parade on the Avenue. Instead I would watch it on TV, since it was so hot outside. And it is only televised in Puebla.
There is no special food, no special music or dancing. There are sometimes some vendor carts near the parade, but these street carts sell the same food that they sell everyday around the city: foods like tacos, tamales, chalupas (tiny tortillas filled with meat, salsa, sour cream, and queso fresco), quesadillas, aqua de horchata (rice milk with sugar and cinnamon), aqua de jamaica (hibiscus water) or tepache (a drink made with slightly fermented pineapple skins and brown sugar and cinnamon). They might sell ice cream or sorbets. Kids can get balloons, cotton candy, candy apples, or peanuts.
But, since there are no specific foods for May 5, I will share a recipe that is traditional to Puebla, specifically:
Chiles en Nogada
(Peppers stuffed with ground beef, topped with a walnut cream sauce, and garnished with pomegranate seeds. The dish is green from the peppers, white from the sauce, and red from the pomegranate, giving it the three colors of the Mexican flag.)
8 large poblano peppers
For Walnut Sauce
1 cup walnut halves
3/4 cup milk
200 grams cream cheese
1/2 cups crema or sour cream
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/3 cup raisins
3 teaspoons oil
1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
3 teaspoons candied lemon (if you can’t find candied lemon, you can use a teaspoon of lemon juice and a drizzle of honey)
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground clove
1 pound ground beef
2 peaches, diced
3 teaspoons parsley, minced
3/4 of an onion, diced
2 garlic cloves chopped
1/3 cup almonds, skinned and chopped
6 tomatoes, peeled and diced (I used one 14 oz can of diced tomatoes)
1 apple, diced
1 sweet yellow plantain, diced
1. Put all ingredients for the walnut sauce in a food processor, and mix until you have a creamy consistency. Add salt and pepper to taste. Put aside in the refrigerator.
2. Char and roast the peppers on the open flame of the stove. Put them in a ziplock bag, and allow them to steam for an additional five minutes. This way, the skins will come off easily when wiped with a paper towel.
3. Once skinned, cut a slit (about 2 inches) vertically up the side of the peppers. Use this slit to remove the seeds from the peppers. Set aside. (Emily's note: Don't worry if, as you rub off the char and remove the seeds, you mutilate your peppers like I did. The stuffing and the sauce covers it all, and your dish will be delicious and gorgeous regardless.)
4. Brown the meat with salt and pepper. Once browned, strain the fat off and discard.
5. Separately, sear the plantains in some oil until they are brown and set aside.
6. Sweat the onions and garlic with the tomatoes in the oil in a big pan. Add peaches, apples, almonds, raisins, and candied lemon.
7. Add the spices (cumin, clove, cinnamon).
8. Add the meat and the plantains back into the mixture and season with salt and pepper to your taste.
9. Add the parsley. Cook for an additional 5 minutes.
10. Stuff the peppers with the meat mixture. Pour the sauce over the stuffed pepper and garnish with a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds and parsley.
Emily's note: I served these with rice and a fresh salad, and I thought that was a delightful combination. Carlos recommended a nice, crisp white wine to wash it all down and cut through the richness of the dish. Also, you will likely have some sauce leftover. Don't fret, I made a salad the next day with arugula, sliced beets, the leftover pomegranate, and I found the sauce from this recipe to be delightful drizzled on top.)
I'd love to know what you think!: Let me know if you cook this recipe (or if you have thoughts on Carlos' amazing story) in the comments below!