Naturally, the first thing I did when I found out that I’d be living in Puebla was take to the internet and scour the search pages. And what did I find? Puebla is the capital of the state of the same name, and is most famous for being the city in which the French troops of Napoleon III were defeated on the 5th of May, 1862 in the great Battle of Puebla. At the time the French army was considered the most powerful army in the world, and the Mexicans were outnumbered, under-skilled, and ill-equipped. Nevertheless, the Mexicans fought them off until they retreated, making it the first French defeat since Waterloo in 1815, and the first time that penniless, war-torn Mexico had defeated a foreign invader. The army leader heralded with this monumental triumph is General Ignacio Zaragoza. Heralded so much was he, that the following year the city was renamed in his honour from Puebla de los Ángeles to Puebla de Zaragoza. As if that wasn’t quite glorious enough, it was renamed again in 1950 as Heróica Puebla de Zaragoza. And to emphasise the heroical history of Puebla and General Zaragoza just a teeny tiny little bit more, when the children write the fecha completa (full date) at the top of every page in their workbooks, it is written ‘H. Puebla de Z., a 12 de Mayo 2014’. (Just don’t mention that the French came back in 1863 and successfully captured the city.)
We know by now that the Mexicans don’t normally need any excuse to celebrate, so you can imagine what happens when they do have one: all hands on deck! Cinco de Mayo (Fifth of May) was born, and is celebrated annually with the month-long Feria de Puebla, a huge fair held on the site of the battleground with rides, bars, daily music events, games and conferences. And on the day itself (of course a bank holiday), an enormous parade makes its way through the city. The Pueblans are very proud of it, and as preparations began, including huge stands and seating lining the Boulevard Cinco de Mayo, I grew increasingly intrigued to see what was in store. The parade was due to start at midday, and on the night before my host mum told me that we’d be leaving at 8am to get a good seat. Slightly excessive, I thought, given that we live a three minute walk from the Boulevard. But when we arrived we squeezed into the last two front-row spots and bought a pair of little wooden stools to wait. For the next few hours many minor spats ensued between people already there and others trying to squeeze in and get the best view. Apparently the raised stands had been full since 5am in the morning. Evidently, this parade was a BIG deal.
In the four hours we waited for the parade to start and reach us, the Boulevard was full of vendors selling traditional Mexican treats.
In the evenings the streets of Puebla’s ‘downtown’ are full of these carts selling crisps, ‘aguas’ (fruit drinks), and jelly pots.
This guy is selling nuts and amaranth sweets. Amaranth was a staple grain of the Aztec era and formed an integral part of religious ceremonies and rituals (it was notoriously, but not reliably, mixed with blood for use in human sacrifice). It has a very high nutrient content and is sold in health food shops, but is more commonly mixed with honey and sugar to make candy bars that look like bird food called alegría, ‘happiness’.
Squirt is the nation’s favourite grapefruit-flavoured soft drink, pronounced ‘e-squer’. In truly Mexican style, it is served in cups ready-lined with chilli powder. “Sin chile para mi, por favor.”
A TV crew arrived and the crowd got VERY excited. The people next to me started shouting, “¡tenemos una guera!” – “we have a white girl!” – to improve their chances of being filmed, hilarious!
To keep the baying crowds happy we were also treated to a flyover by the Mexican version of the British Red Arrows.
Finally, in the scorching midday sun, the parade got under way, and it was quite spectacular!
Armed forces marched in their hundreds.
There were more different uniforms than I could count, and various weapons, instruments and other paraphernalia, including eagles!
After all of the military forces came a whirlwind history of Mexico in the form of animated floats and reenactments.
Mexico is really famous for its murals, and Puebla is no exception. The promotion of mural painting began in the 1920s as part of an effort to reunify the country under the post-Revolution government. Painted onto public buildings, they generally had social or political messages: at a time when most of the country’s population was illiterate, they were encouraged as art for education and the bettering of the people in line with nationalist ideals. The mural-painting tradition continues to this day, and my Barrio of Xanenetla has some great examples. To see more on the murals in my area please follow this link: http://www.nileguide.com/destination/blog/puebla-mexico-74/2011/01/10/murals-in-the-xanenetla-historic-barrio/
The day was an absolute scorcher and the atmosphere was terrific. Celebrating in the history of Puebla and Mexico was very special for me, especially as an anthropologist wanting to learn as much as I can about the people, their culture and their sentiments. If there’s one thing Mexicans do really well, it’s coming together to celebrate, and it was wonderful to feel a part of that.