Tucson Citizen
Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Nostalgic for Cinco de Mayo

Fiesta was marked in Tucson by family time, not party time, a retiree recalls


When David Herrera was growing up in Tucson, Cinco de Mayo was a modest family event and a time to reflect on the character of the Mexican people.
"I remember speeches about what happened," the 84-year-old said of the Mexican victory over French troops on May 5, 1862.

The battle at Puebla defined Mexicans and represented the resolve of their culture to never back down, Herrera remembers neighborhood leaders saying at Armory Park in the 1930s.

"You do not see that anymore," the retired Tucson Parks and Recreation Department employee said.

Festivities included a parade, food, music and the crowning of a queen.

"Girls would wear beautiful Mexican dresses and men wore neckties," Herrera recalled. "It was beautiful in those days."

The event was family time, not party time, he said.

"There was some drinking, but that's not what it was all about," Herrera said. "But, that was the old days."

In Tucson, Cinco de Mayo has become so closely associated with drinking that law-enforcement agencies have antidrunken-driving patrols on days surrounding the holiday.
And some health advocates are holding alcohol-free celebrations to counter the large, annual beer company-sponsored Kennedy Park fiesta, which was last weekend.

"It has turned into the Mexican St. Patrick's Day," Tucson Hispanic Coalition board member Marty Cortez said. "That's the wrong message to send, especially to our kids."

Cortez, a retired educator, avoids the celebrations and would like to see the day observed from an educational and cultural perspective.

"That doesn't mean that you can't have music," Cortez said. "I would just love to see it turned into a positive impact event."

Hispanic native Tucsonan Genevieve Whalen doesn't recall attending any events on Cinco de Mayo when she was a girl.

The day was a time for simple family picnics and a new dress, the 85-year-old said.

"We didn't talk much about what (the day) meant," she said. "It was just family time."

Whalen said she would like to see more historical aspects of Cinco de Mayo incorporated into the Kennedy Park event.

But, she added, at least there is recognition of the day.

"I'm glad that they're celebrating it," she said.


With the United States embroiled in the Civil War, French Emperor Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew, saw an opportunity to expand the French empire in the New World. Mexico was a target because its economy was in shambles after the loss of Texas, the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s and the Mexican Civil War of 1858.

Mexico suspended payments on debts of more than $82 million to England, Spain and France in 1861. France used that as a pretext to invade, despite being owed less than $2 million, according to "5 de Mayo, 1862" by Pedro A. Palou.

France invaded with 6,500 soldiers along the gulf coast in Veracruz and began a march toward Mexico City. But Mexico's campesino army of 4,500, stationed in the Puebla hilltop forts of Guadalupe and Loreto under the leadership of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, repulsed three attacks and defeated the French.

Napoleon sent 30,000 troops to Mexico a year later, and they defeated the Mexican army and installed Archduke Maximilian of Austria as ruler. Maximilian was overthrown and executed in 1867.