Cinco de Mayo and us

It was an accident, although unlike most accidents it turned out to be a happy one.

On Friday night my wife and I dropped by the National Hispanic Cultural Center for a performance of the Dzul Dance Company. We weren’t celebrating anything in particular, just having a night out at what promised to be an unusual and exciting combination of music, dance and acrobatics.

We didn’t even know what date it was. Although my wife is Hispanic, like most Americans and like nearly all Mexicans we had never celebrated the date: May 5— Cinco de Mayo.

An—nimo, Batalla del 5 de mayo de 1862, —leo sobre tela, Museo Nacional de las Intervenciones, Exconvento de Churubusco, INAH. Imagen tomada del libro: Eduardo B‡ez, La pintura militar en el siglo XIX, MŽxico, Secretar’a de la Defensa Nacional, 1992, p. 1

Cinco the Mayo marks May 5, 1862, the date 4,000 poorly trained, badly armed, largely indigenous Mexican soldiers, including Zacapoaxtiaz farmers who fought with the Mexican Army, defeated 8,000 superbly armed and trained Frenchmen, members of the best army on earth, which had not been defeated in 50 years.

The famed Battle of Puebla was a rare victory for the downtrodden Mexicans, who went on in short order to lose the war and suffer several years of servitude to the French Emperor Napoleon III.

There seems to be something universal that appeals to the human soul in brave men fighting heroically in a losing cause. After all, the American National Anthem celebrates a battle in the disastrous War of 1812, which the U.S.launched in a bungled effort to seize Canada from the British.

Similarly, when I was growing up in the South in the 1940s, our heroes were the generals who led the Confederacy to defeat. Even today, as I write, the city of New Orleans is in a state of near civil war over whether to remove three statues honoring those who were defeated defending slavery.

In a remarkably successful effort to assuage the angst of our defeat in Vietnam, the black marble memorial in Washington, D.C., has attracted the silent submission of millions. I wonder how long after we admit defeat in Afghanistan will it be before we build another memorial to fallen heroes.

Curiously, Cinco de Mayo is not a popular holiday in Mexico, where only the city of Puebla celebrates it. But in the United States, the date has taken on enormous symbolic importance as the greatest celebration of Mexican-American culture. Beginning in the 1980s, city after city scheduled public celebrations, culminating in the 1990s with 120 gatherings, the biggest of which drew half a million residents of Los Angeles.

Since then, public enthusiasm has waned somewhat while the holiday has been promoted by tequila companies and sellers of sombreros as a somewhat ersatz commercial event that has overshadowed its original bicultural motif. In the Albuquerque metro area, the only events, aside from some restaurants publicizing tacos and tequila, were a performance at the South Broadway Cultural Center and the Druz Dance.

The introduction to Druz took a political turn, including a mention of the significance of Mexican culture in the United States, as well as a veiled reference to President Donald Trump’s rage against Mexicans and immigrants: “We all know some one who speaks of the day in a way that we’d prefer they didn’t.”

Even Trump, however, felt a need to nod toward Cinco de Mayo, issuing a generic statement from the White House. Two years ago, when Reince Priebus, was head of the Republican National Committee, he said Cinco de Mayo “is one of the many traditions brought to this country by those looking for a better life and in search of the American Dream. As we look to the future, America must remain a welcoming country that finds its strength in both our diversity and our common values.”

Now, as White House chief of staff, the statement Priebus issued omitted any such “welcoming.”

Druz Dance is the kind of company that could not exist without a large dose of “welcoming.” Its principal dancers include a black man, Kurt Douglas, from Guyana; Noriko Naraoka, a Japanese dancer from Tokyo; and Anna Venizelos, a longtime collaborator of Cirque de Soleil in Montreal. One member of the company, dancer Ferico Garcia, is from Las Cruces. Javiar Druz, the founder, choreographer, star dancer and ubiquitous artistic presence was raised in a Maya community in southern Mexico.

The company, which is based in New York, is thus an exemplar of the cultural synergy that is a trademark of the U.S. and a demonstration of how immigration has been the heart of America since the very beginning. Druz’s selection to perform on Cinco de Mayo underlined the date as primarily a creation of a unique Mexican-American culture.

The performance, titled “Rite of Passage,” was itself a fusion of styles and themes. The program notes emphasized the links to traditional Maya myths. But the costumes (except for the elaborate headdresses), music, dance and, extraordinary circus acts were as distant from the original Maya rites as modern Irish dance and contemporary Russian folk concerts are from the traditions that inspired them.

But that in no way denigrates the magical impact of the performance. The music and lighting lent a suggestive eeriness. The dancers were contortionists on the ground and acrobatic aerialists floating through the air. Bared bodies with muscles on display were an art in themselves. (In New York, contortionist Venizelos performed a snake dance with live snakes covering her body.)

On any day of the year this would be a show to relish. On Cinco de Mayo it was memorable.

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