Holiday invites you to hoot, holler and celebrate history

May 01, 2002|By ROB KASPER

AS A FELLA who never needs much of an excuse to celebrate a holiday, I was curious about Cinco de Mayo.

That phrase, I learned recently, means the 5th of May and not, as I once heard, margarita day. Cinco de Mayo is both a date that falls on this Sunday and an invitation to hoot and holler, Hispanic style.

This weekend, Latino bars and restaurants in Baltimore and elsewhere will squeeze limes into many beverages, serve dishes decked out in the colors of the Mexican flag, hire mariachi bands, and generally be the sites of a roaring good time.

The question I recently posed to a few local Latino restaurateurs is: What exactly is everybody celebrating?

The short answer is the defeat of the French. In May 1862, Mexican patriots bested the French army at the battle of Puebla and once again freed Mexico from domination by a European power.

Cinco de Mayo is not a celebration of Mexican independence. That happened earlier, in September 1810, when Mexicans threw off their Spanish rulers. In Mexico, I am told, the September holiday, Independence Day, is a much bigger deal than the May 5th festivities.

But many folks in the United States have a hard time keeping track of ancient European oppressors of Mexico.

"People ask me, `Is Cinco de Mayo your Independence Day?' " Gilberto Cortes, a native of Mexico who owns two Howard County restaurants, El Azteca and La Palapa, told me. "I tell them, `No. It is a nice day, a good time, but it is not Independence Day.' "

Cinco de Mayo celebrations also differ between Mexico and the Unites States, Cortes said.

For instance, he said his hometown of San Luis Soyatlan, population 5,000, celebrates by having the schoolchildren parade through the streets. "It is a bit of history," he said.

Meanwhile at his restaurant in Ellicott City, a nine-piece mariachi band will entertain an expected crowd of 300-plus celebrants, most of whom have only a faint idea of the historical significance of the day.

Despite the fact that the Cinco-de-Mayo set here might flunk a pop quiz in Mexican history, the holiday is growing in popularity in the United States, especially on the East Coast.

"When I came to America in the early '70s, nobody knew about Cinco de Mayo," Cortes said. "Then it started to grow in Southern California, where people were relocating from Mexico. Now it is here, and is bigger and bigger every year."

The celebration has even penetrated the heart of American culture, the area shopping mall. In Arundel Mills mall, Chevys restaurant is throwing a Cinco de Mayo party with the Latino tunes of Orlando Phillips. Meanwhile, the Chevys restaurant in Annapolis, a restaurant spokeswoman assured me, is close to nailing down a return appearance by the star of last year's Cinco de Mayo shindig - a petable donkey.

While the holiday has Mexican roots, it is being touted in the United States as a celebration of Latino culture, a fiesta for all Spanish-speaking people. Food and beverage corporations, which see Cinco de Mayo as a chance to tap the country's fast-growing Hispanic market, are doing most of this touting.

I recently got a taste of that marketing effort when I received a Cinco de Mayo packet from Melissa's, a Los Angeles produce supplier, pushing Mexican items including recipes for jicama and cactus leaves. Right on its heels came a Cinco de Mayo missive from the Distilled Spirits Council on how to make "south of the border" cocktails. They included the margarita - 1 ounce of tequila, 1/2 ounce triple sec and the juice of half a lime served in a salt-rimmed glass - and the mojito, a mixture of muddled mint leaves, sugar and rum that sounded like a Mexican mint julep.

Nick Marrero, one of the owners of Gecko's, a Baltimore restaurant featuring Southwestern fare, set me straight on the mojito. It is not really a Mexican cocktail, he said. Rather it is popular with folks like him, who hail from Puerto Rico and the nearby islands.

Marrero will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo at his restaurant near Patterson Park. But he said will be serving more cerveza (beer) and margaritas, than mojitos.

The holiday may have wandered a bit from its roots, Marrero said. But it is a "friendly day," he said, that falls in May, traditionally a nice time of year, so people embrace it.

He likened the mood among the celebrants to that displayed on another transplanted holiday, St. Patrick's Day. "Except that on Cinco de Mayo, it is `Kiss Me, I'm Mexican,' " he said.

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