To and Fro On Cinco De Mayo

Sometimes things are not what they appear, and traditions that may seem to have obvious origins may be deceptive. A closer look at the ostensibly Mexican festival of Cinco De Mayo provided me with a number of examples of traditions that have travelled.

My knowledge of Cinco De Mayo (Fifth of May) came from a Ween song that I enjoyed, back in the day. I figured it must be a Mexican holiday of some importance, given the “gravity” of the lyrics about murder and revenge (I think the delivery is less serious). The song popped into my head as the date approached and I wondered what the occasion was about, so I engaged the usual internet search machine.

Hang on a minute, Cinco De Mayo is barely a minor holiday in Mexico, and only in one area of the country. So what’s with all the drinking and street parties across America, Japan and increasingly, here in Australia?

It may have started as the patriotic response of expat Mexicans, who first celebrated the (unexpected) Mexican defeat of a French invasion that took place on May 5, the true origin of the celebratory date. It may have gained popularity because it took place at a convenient time of year for Mexican agriculture workers in the USA, who enjoyed the chance to partake of a fiesta but didn’t want to seem disloyal by partying too hard on Mexico’s official Independence Day, which is on September 16. And it seems to have spread because it seemed like another good opportunity to commercialise a holiday.

So Cinco De Mayo has become a sort of catch-all celebration of Mexican-ness. Which is what I thought I was doing (celebrating Mexico) when I made churros with chocolate-chilli sauce for a picnic in our yard.

But no, churros are Spanish, which I should have guessed. Possibly from a recipe brought back from China by the Portugese, just to complicate the story. They are named after an attractive and hardy variety of sheep — also from the Iberian Peninsula– because their curly, ridged forms are reminiscent of the rams’ horns. I was interested to discover that these sheep were imported to the Americas to feed and clothe the conquistadors and have been farmed there ever since.

So our colourful Mexican yo-yos shall provide our authentic link to Mexico, I thought, and we pulled them out for a play. They have “Mexico” stamped on them! But it seems that yo-yos have become a “traditional” toy only since the 1920s or so, partly because they are easily handmade. Yo-yos may have originated in ancient Greece or China, it’s not clear, but their popularity on the American continent can be attributed to the innovations of Filipino entrepreneur, Pedro Flores. He opened the first yo-yo factory in California in 1928 and the craze quickly spread south of the border.

Well. We added some craft to the mix for our celebration of Mexican culture, and I think we nailed it in the end (although the Internet offers few reliable sources of information in regards to “Eye of God” weavings so perhaps further research is required). Many of us have made paddle-pop-stick versions of these “Ojo De Dios” at kindergarten, without learning much about the customs behind them. Ojo De Dios weavings are apparently ancient, spiritual objects important to cultures indigenous to the Americas, including Mexico. They have various meanings and uses but I particularly love the idea of a father adding a new coloured band to the “eye” for each year of a child’s life, like the rings of a tree trunk.

We enjoyed a small Mexican picnic, and it was influenced by Spain, Portugal, perhaps China, Greece and the Phillipines. Our picnic marked an occasion that is barely a blip on Mexico’s radar but is huge in the USA and beyond.

Isn’t it incredible to discover, as you travel, how far cultures have travelled too.

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