Lots of Norteamericos don’t know what Cinco de Mayo is about. Some of them started celebrating (and drinking) on May 1st. And the way things are going in 2010, I don’t blame them -- and Xochipilli would approve. But this bizarre cultural anomaly has a lot more to it than nachos and Margaritas.
First, it’s not Mexican Independence Day. That’s the 16th of September. Cinco got the North-of-the-Border recognition because it’s easier for Anglos to say than “Dieciséis de Septiembre.”
What really happened on the 5th of May in 1862 was the Battle of Puebla, one of the few military actions in Mexican history that didn’t involve Mexicans on both sides. And beating Napoleon’s army was no small feat.
A big part of the celebration in Mexico are reenactments of the battle. Last year the one near Mexico City was canceled due to fears about the H1N1. Fortunately, other towns did not succumb to the cowardice.
These reenactments are spectacular. There are costumes, makeup, guns, and machetes. And lots of action and excitement.
The guys who look like alternate-universe Arabs are supposed to be Napoleon’s troops. The ones painted black in the colorful peasant outfits represent the Zacapoaxtlas: Mestizos and Zapotecs led by General Ignacio Zaragoza.
Yeah, I know, Americanos find the black paint disturbing. The alternative would have been to have the French paint themselves white, which would not have been any less strange. Imagine Uncle Tom’s Cabin with an all-Latino cast in either black or whiteface. There is an undeniable racial angle to this ritual: It is the fantasy of defeating the white invaders, a different American dream.
Some of the Zacapoaxtlas are wearing low-cut blouses and dresses. These represent women, soldaderas -- like Ignacia Reacy, who was a commander of the Lancers of Jalisco until she was killed in action in 1866. They are played by men because of a local tribal tradition.
This is a twisted expression of Mexican macho: “Ey! Gabachos! I’m gonna paint myself black, put on a dress, and kick your butts!”
There is also something of ritual cross-dressing that evokes supernatural power in cultures around the planet. The way they swagger in those dresses, mustachios bristling, chicken feet in their teeth . . . there’s a bit of voodoo there.
The voodoo grows and mutates, like the monster-filled Cinco de Mayo parade from the town of Zacapoaxtla. Creatures of the past live again, creating a lively future.
I’d like to see these reenactments added to the drinking, eating, mariachis music, Aztec dancers, and political statements of our Norteamericano celebrations. It would be fun, and would help to enlighten people in the wake of Arizona Immigration Law SB1070 as to what’s really been happening on this continent all these glorious centuries.