How the D Does Cinco de Mayo

Where do you go for an authentic Cinco de Mayo celebration? In Detroit, your answer is to head to the Southwest side – home to the largest population of Mexicans and other Latinos in the state of Michigan, and where there is a long and rich history of celebrating the holiday.

Detroit’s best-known annual Cinco de Mayo parade has been sponsored by The Mexican Patriotic Committee (celebrating its 81st  birthday) for over 40 years. This year’s parade is at noon Sunday, May 7, starting in Southwest Detroit’s Patton Park and marching 2 ½ miles up Vernor Highway to Mexicantown’s Clark Park, where festivities continue until 8 p.m.

The parade unites the Mexican community and others in a show of Mexican, Chicano and Latino pride, featuring spectacular dancing low-and-slow Low Riders and tricked out bicycles by those too young to drive. There are also floats, traditional folkloric dancers, community groups and local politicians. Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, but Boricuas (Puerto Ricans) and Cubanos, among others, also can be found celebrating being a Latino in America.

Of course, the best margaritas, authentic Mexican beer, and authentic Mexican food are to be found in Mexicantown and throughout Southwest Detroit – at restaurants such as Taqueria Lupita’s, Taqueria Mi Pueblo, and El Nacimiento to name a few.

A little history

But, first things first: What’s your Spanish vocabulary? Hola, adios, amigo, hasta la vista, baby? Cinco de Mayo, literally translated, is “May 5.” What’s so special about that, besides being as good a date as any for a really great party? Well, here’s a little history, short version.

La Batalla de Puebla (The Battle of Puebla): Following independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican-American War, and the Mexican Civil War, in 1862 Mexico found itself the target of French colonialism. Napoleon III decided to expand the French empire into the Americas, and sent troops to invade Mexico. En route to Mexico’s capital, the long-undefeated French army — estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000 troops — was met by an scantily equipped but very determined Mexican and Native American militia numbering half those of the French. The Mexicans, led by General Ignacio S. Zaragoza, persevered and won the battle. To this day, Cinco de Mayo is enthusiastically celebrated in the state of Puebla, Mexico, where the French army was stopped.

So, what does this mean to us here in the States? Depends on whom you ask. According to acting Consul of Mexico in Detroit, Oscar Antonio de la Torre-Amezcua, “There are three main reasons Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the United States.” The first is that General Zaragoza was born in what is now Goliad County, Texas. In fact, a State Historic Site was established in the 1960s to commemorate the birthplace of the general who led Mexican forces to victory in La Batalla de Puebla. The second reason, according to de la Torre-Amezcua, is that “Cinco de Mayo (offers the opportunity) to express … heritage with Mexicans,” and to proudly celebrate our Mexican and Hispanic heritages. The third reason, though surely not least, is “the Hispanic market in the U.S.,” says the acting Consul. That market contributes $720 billion annually to the economy, he says.

Among many Americans, Cinco de Mayo has become party, a chance to dine on Mexican or Tex-Mex cuisine and drink cervezas (beer). However, de la Torre-Amezcua reminds us that in Mexico and to Mexicans, Cinco de Mayo is “most importantly a civic ceremony … to remember the memory of those that fought in a historic and heroic battle.” The battle was historic in terms of defeating the strongest and most feared military in the world, in establishing a “commitment to the (Mexican) military,” he says, and in its importance to the presidency of Mexico’s still favorite President, Benito Juarez. “La Batalla de Puebla means for the Mexican people the expression of Mexicans … (to) accomplish our goals.”
With ’60s and ’70s activism and the rise of the Chicano (loosely, U.S.-born citizens of Mexican descent) movement, others believe that Cinco de Mayo has become more politicized and a symbol of the rise of Mexican-American activism and the Latino civil rights movement in the U.S.

Celebrate with authenticity

What makes a Cinco de Mayo celebration authentic? Well, dare I say it? A Mexican.

Look for events that are created by and for primarily Mexicans and Chicanos. There you will find authentic Mexican food.  Anything with a mole poblano sauce – the culinary symbol of Mexico, made with a variety of chiles, chocolate (another Mexican original), and other ingredients, is especially authentic. Specific to the Mexican state of Puebla is the dish Turkey Poblano – difficult to find in southwest Detroit, but a great home recipe. Corn-based dishes, such as tamales and enchiladas are authentic, as is the traditional soup pozole, made with pork and hominy.

For dessert: chongos zamoranos, often likened to a sweet cheese or curd pudding, made with milk, sugar and cinnamon, topped with syrup. You can find it in specialty markets, such as Southwest Detroit’s Honeybee – La.  More readily available and close approximations might be the desserts flan or a tres leches (three milk) cake. For great desserts, La Gloria Bakery (on Bagley) and Mexicantown Bakery (on Vernor) are best known. La Gloria’s tres leches cakes are to die for. While there, pick up homemade pan dulce (sweet breads) to munch on with your morning coffee, or handmade tamales – many of which are now vegetarian.

Beverages? Only one: tequila (not to be confused with mescal, “the poor man’s tequila” with the worm).  Reposado tequilas that are 100 percent agave are perhaps the most favored. Locally, the restaurant Agave in Midtown offers the largest variety of tequilas (they're holding a Cinco de Mayo party May 7 that goes till 2 a.m.).

And what goes best with good food and good drink? Authentic entertainment: Mariachi and folk music and folk dancing (ballet folklorico).

Where to celebrate

So, now that we have all this figured out, on to the business at hand: Que esta pasando en su barrio? (What’s happening in your neighborhood)?

In addition to the parade through Southwest Detroit and the big festival, there are several art shows — including Solderaderas: Women and Revolution at the Bagley Housing Gallery and Mensaje Latino at 555 Gallery in Woodbridge.

Click here for a map and comprehensive list of events going on in Southwest Detroit.

And remember, raise your glass and say, “Salud.” Be thankful for a holiday that celebrates civic pride, heritage and culture — and offers important reasons for great celebrations.

Veronica A. Paiz is executive director of Casa de Unidad cultural center in Southwest Detroit. For more on the center, click here.


Cinco de Mayo Photographs Copyright Myrna Segura-Sample of the Mexicantown Community Development Corp.

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