Join the other curious and interested readers of my Sunday letters. Sign up
Enjoy this piece? Get more like it every Sunday.Sign up

What Cinco de Mayo in Mexico Is Really Like

I just spent Cinco de Mayo in Mexico - and it wasn’t anything like you’d expect.

See, Cinco de Mayo is one of those weird holidays like St. Patrick’s day whose spread and celebration is almost entirely due to beer companies.

The real story of Cinco de Mayo comes from Puebla. It's a small town in central Mexico that managed to turn back Napoleon at the height of his conquer-the-world binge. It was a tiny, under-equipped army against the best trained, best supplied army in the world. The French outnumbered the Mexicans, two to one. But against all the odds, on the fifth of May, Puebla's little army won.

The victory didn’t stop Napoleon - he came back with more troops and conquered Mexico within the year. But the news of the improbable victory went up the coast, miners in California celebrated, and Cinco de Mayo was born.

In Puebla, it’s still celebrated - as well it should be, but everywhere else in Mexico, it’s pretty much another day.

The day doubles as a civil servant’s holiday, so there are a few more kids around, enjoying well-deserved day off school. But other than that, here in San Cristóbal, you’d never know it was a big deal.

The Zocalo is filled with its usual mix of families, shoe shine boys, and lone men, arms crossed, staring into the afternoon.

The walking streets are half-full, locals moving at a decent clip, using the wide-open boulevard as the quickest way to get from here to there.

The little shops for quesadillas and tortas are open for lunch, closed for siesta, then open late into the night.

The corner tiendas, as always, are open. Exhausted shopkeepers doze off as kids play, running circles ‘round the snack rack.

The market pathways are packed with tiny Maya and we too-large foreigners. As always, an overwhelming mix of fruit, ass-enhancing jeans and chickens are out for sale. Smells mix, cacophonic - this afternoon’s tortillas, this morning’s cheese, fish whose age is inscrutable.

The plazas sprawl out in front of the cathedrals, nearly empty. A handful of kids play and young lovers make out on benches. Last night’s offerings transfigure in the sun, turning from viva into stale beer and rotting fruit.

There are firecrackers.

There is life, passion, vigor, struggle.

It is - like every other Tuesday - amazing.

Nah, I hate curiousity.