By Jamie Lozano
It was the year 2007 and I had just arrived in NYC. I came to this inspiring, fun and diverse city because I had the amazing opportunity to study in the master’s program in musical theatre writing at New York University. To my surprise, I was (and still am) the first Mexican who graduated from this program. Studying at NYU has changed me in ways I never could have dreamed, and living here has been one of the best experiences of my life.
To be honest, I’ve never been a very social person. Usually I’m very quiet and don’t like noisy parties. But when you’re in a city just by yourself, with your whole family and friends back in your hometown in another country more than 2,000 miles away, you have to adapt and do things you never imagined doing before — like socializing!
As the only Mexican at my school, I got this question a lot around this time of year: “What are you doing for Cinco de Mayo?” (or “Happy Cinco de Mayo!”) And of course, since I’m a Mexican who was born in México, my answer was always, “What are you talking about? Is Cinco de Mayo a celebration?”
Well, I found out that in the United States, it is! A lot of people mistakenly believe that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican independence. The real and only Mexican Independence Day (or Día de Independencia) is commemorated on Sept. 16. That day actually commemorates when Father Miguel Hidalgo cried out to his parish in the small town of Dolores and asked his community to rise up and take charge of their destiny. The day began a long journey to reach the liberty and independence of México from Spain that ended 11 years later.
So why do people in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo? What really happened on May 5? Well, let me start by saying that in México, May 5 is a day like any other one — people go to work and school. But something did actually happen on May 5, 1862, around 40 years after Mexican independence.
At that time, México was in financial ruin after years of internal conflict, and the president, an indigenous Zapotec lawyer named Benito Juárez, was forced to default on loan payments to European governments, specifically Britain, Spain and France. Because of that, these countries sent naval forces to México. The president was able to negotiate with Britain and Spain, but France, ruled then by Napoleon III, decided to try to conquer the country. It was May 5, 1862 when the French troops attacked Puebla de Los Ángeles, at the time a small town in central México, with an army three times larger than ours. We Mexicans are known for being hard workers and that small army was no exception. By the end of the day, the French army — which was then considered one of the strongest armies — retreated. That battle, known as La Batalla de Puebla, become iconic for México. Fun fact: the Mexican army was led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, born in the village of Bahía del Espíritu Santo, known today as Goliad, Texas!
And why is this day celebrated in the United States? It is said that when Mexican workers in California (which originally belonged to México but became part of the U.S. in 1850) heard about México winning the Battle of Puebla, they celebrated with fireworks and rifle shots. From then, the day became a huge celebration for Mexicans in California. It was many years later, during the Chicano movement of 1940 to 1960, that the celebration started to spread all around the country. But in my opinion, it wasn’t until American corporations (especially beer companies) started promoting the holiday in the 1980s, that it became such a phenomenon.
Some Mexicans are against celebrating Cinco de Mayo. They consider it a celebration created for “gringos.” But as a Mexican now living in the U.S., I understand how many different kinds of us there are. Some of us were born in México (like me). Some of us are children of Mexicans. Some of us speak Spanish; some don’t. Some enjoy spicy food; some don’t. Some are white, some are brown, some are tall, some are short — but we are all Mexicans.
So for me, Cinco de Mayo has become a way to unite all these different kinds of Mexicans living in the U.S. I think of all of us who are trying to be free or who are looking for a better life. I celebrate my people, my country, my community, my familia and my culture. Cinco de Mayo is not just a day to party but a day to share music, art, culture, who I am and where I come from. So let’s make Cinco de Mayo a battle that we’re going to win together — as a community. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you believe. Together, we are stronger. And at the end, we’re gonna celebrate winning one more battle. ¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
Local 802 member Jaime Lozano is an accomplished musician, vocal coach, composer, arranger, orchestrator, musical producer and musical theatre director. He was one of five artists selected for the 2020 Joe’s Pub Working Group residency and is a voting member of the Grammys. Read his full bio at www.jaimelozano.net.
Opinions expressed in Allegro do not necessarily reflect those of the members, officers or staff of Local 802. To submit a personal story, e-mail Allegro@Local802afm.org