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Cinco de Mayo is part of a deeper story of 2 nations trying to define themselves


Cinco de Mayo, May 5, is a day that's come to stand for a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. But Cinco de Mayo is part of a much deeper story of two nations, Mexico and the U.S., trying to define themselves at a time when old empires were crumbling and borders were in flux. Hosts Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah from our history podcast Throughline bring us this story.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: We're in the historic center of Mexico's capital, Mexico City, a massive city of over 8 million people, with tour guide Ismael Rivera.

ISMAEL RIVERA: (Speaking Spanish). My name is Ismael Rivera (ph). I was born in Mexico City.

ABDELFATAH: I can't help but go on a historic tour of pretty much everywhere I visit now.

RIVERA: Underneath me here, there's three Aztec temple dedicated to the sun, to the wind and the...

ABDELFATAH: Ismael guides us through winding streets, past towering Gothic churches, ancient Aztec temple sites, ornately engraved Spanish colonial arches, a salsa class in one square and a busy market with taco vendors every two feet. The smell is delicious - like, unreal. And then we find ourselves in a quieter place, surrounded by tall trees, fountains with statues of Greek gods and these vibrant purple flowers called jacarandas.

RIVERA: This is Alameda Park. It was the first one in American continent.

ABDELFATAH: Alameda Central Park was built in the 16th century. It sits right off of Cinco de Mayo Avenue.

RIVERA: And Diego Rivera paints a mural about this park.

ABDELFATAH: Diego Rivera, who's considered one of the greatest Mexican painters of the 20th century, called this mural "Sueno De Una Tarde Dominical En La Alameda Centrale," "Dream Of A Sunday Afternoon In Alameda Central." A replica of the mural stretches maybe 50 feet long across the side of a building at one end of the park.

RIVERA: It's divided in different periods - Hispanic period, colonial period.

ABDELFATAH: The mural basically tells the entire history of Mexico from the fall of the Aztec empire in the 16th century, when the Spanish conquerors arrived, to a revolution in the 20th century in images, like a modern-day cave painting. It's a swirl of colors with a tightly packed crowd of people all along the bottom. The faces are Indigenous, African and European - central characters from Mexico's past.

RIVERA: We're seeing a guy with bloody hands. He's Hernan Cortes.

ABDELFATAH: The leader of the Spanish Invasion.

RIVERA: And the blood is the blood of the Native people.

ABDELFATAH: And as you move right across the mural, you see the influence of Catholicism on Mexico.

RIVERA: We see the nun.

ABDELFATAH: A nun in a black hooded veil. Then you see an American general in uniform.

RIVERA: They were the war...

ABDELFATAH: War between the U.S...


ABDELFATAH: ...And Mexico.

RIVERA: Mexico.

ABDELFATAH: There's men in suits, gunslinging farmers in sombreros, women in Victorian gowns alongside women in traditional huipil dresses, including...

RIVERA: Frida Kahlo.

ABDELFATAH: But perhaps the most striking character is a man who sits right around the middle of the mural and looms above all the other characters. He has a head of bright white hair with an impressive mustache to match and is dressed in a dark blue military uniform overrun with medals.

RIVERA: He is Porfirio Diaz.

ABDELFATAH: Porfirio Diaz, the general who ruled Mexico for 35 years. Porfirio Diaz is at the center of the mural and of modern Mexican history thanks to a single day in May.


ABDELFATAH: May 5, Cinco de Mayo. On that day, an epic battle was fought, a battle fought and won by Mexicans against foreign aggression, a battle that helped shape the future of Mexico and the U.S.

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: And that battle is led by several generals, but one of them was Porfirio Diaz.


LYTLE HERNANDEZ: That is what we celebrate when we celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: This is Kelly Lytle Hernandez. She's a professor of history at UCLA and author of a new book called "Bad Mexicans: Race, Empire, And Revolution In The Borderlands."


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Colorful dancers and dozens of bands will be performing up and down San Diego Avenue through the heart...

LYTLE HERNANDEZ: So I grew up in San Diego, Calif. And, oh, gosh, you know, I don't know if I remember a lot about Cinco de Mayo outside of a couple school festivals, maybe a couple of things at local fairs. As a child, you know, a regular African American kid growing up in the borderlands, I witnessed a lot of what was happening around the border and immigration and border policing as I was growing up.

ABDELFATAH: But Kelly says she learned very little about Mexican history in school. And Cinco de Mayo remained this abstract thing - a fun party in the San Diego streets divorced from a particular time and place - until she studied that history as an adult.

MAURICIO TENORIO-TRILLO: What is Cinco de Mayo? Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the victory - of Mexican victory in one battle.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Happening now - thousands flooding downtown Tulsa, celebrating Cinco de Mayo.

RIVERA: And now it's like St. Patrick's Days, you know?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Bringing smiles and also big business to different restaurants.

TENORIO-TRILLO: Cinco de Mayo sale, cerveza, fiesta, whatever.

ARABLOUEI: This is Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo. He's a history professor at the University of Chicago.

TENORIO-TRILLO: I'm also professor at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas in Mexico City.

ARABLOUEI: Growing up in Mexico City, Mauricio had a similar experience to Kelly Lytle Hernandez but in reverse, on the other side of the border. For a long time, he wasn't taught much about U.S. history.

TENORIO-TRILLO: It's all about Mexico. Mexico very, you know, self-contained. And the problem is Mexico, the U.S. and Canada have share a common history for a long time. Cinco de Mayo is one of those things because it represents historically a common past between Mexican and Americans.

ABDELFATAH: A common past of two young border nations figuring out who to become in a rapidly changing world that was shedding old empires and making way for a new economic order, a past seen through wars, coups, revolutions and, of course, a history of migration across the border.


ABDELFATAH: Eventually, a generation after the first Mexican mass migration at the turn of the 20th century, Mexican Americans in the U.S. reclaimed Cinco de Mayo as a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance, part of a budding Chicano movement in the U.S.

ARABLOUEI: And around the 1980s, beer companies saw Cinco de Mayo as a smart business strategy and helped the holiday go mainstream.

ABDELFATAH: Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo says the story of Cinco de Mayo and everything that followed reveals two countries that have been attached at the hip, connected since their founding by land, culture, business and people, yet often in denial of the commonalities they share both then and now.

TENORIO-TRILLO: And at some point, we will look and find out that we have a common body, that the survival of one place or the other depends on the body. And there was no past, there is no present, and there will be no future is not common for the United States and Mexico.


FLORIDO: Throughline hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei brought us that story. You can listen to the complete Throughline Cinco de Mayo episode wherever you listen to podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESTROYER SONG, "KAPUTT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ramtin Arablouei is co-host and co-producer of NPR's podcast Throughline, a show that explores history through creative, immersive storytelling designed to reintroduce history to new audiences.
Rund Abdelfatah is the co-host and producer of Throughline, a podcast that explores the history of current events. In that role, she's responsible for all aspects of the podcast's production, including development of episode concepts, interviewing guests, and sound design.