Commentary: Cinco de Mayo in America

For an only-in-America moment, stroll Wednesday evening through Coconut Grove and note the area's celebration of Cinco de Mayo. As is to be expected, you're sure to see the obligatory free-flows of margaritas and hear the festive sound of mariachi music.

Only be sure to brush up on your French before going. 'Cause this event is called the Fete du Cinco de Mayo -- reminding us that this day is not, as many people believe, marked to commemorate Mexico's independence from Spain, but rather its victory over French forces almost 150 years ago.

The oddity that we Americans celebrate a Mexican battle with France is easily lost in the stupor of downing a bottle of tequila. That we do so, however, speaks to more than just the beauty of immigration — and the might of commercialization — in America.

More importantly, as we engage in a heated debate over immigration reform, this day serves to remind us that the effects of what we do to control events within our borders sometimes depend on actions beyond our own.

By outward appearances, that now-celebrated battle of May 5, 1862, didn't involve the United States, which at the time was entangled in its own civil war. Mexico -- heavily indebted to Spain, Great Britain and France after years of war and turmoil -- was unable to repay its debt.

France decided to take over the country, and the rest is the stuff of legend: Some 4,000 Mexican soldiers -- about half of them poorly trained farmers and villagers -- defeated a mighty French force twice its size. The battle didn't end the war with France, but Mexico's will to fight and win was no less significant.

In recent years, some authors and historians have noted that the French troops weren't sent solely to take over Mexico. For example, Donald W. Miles, author of Cinco de Mayo -- What Is Everybody Celebrating? writes that the French mission had two purposes: to conquer Mexico and to help the Confederacy win the war against the North.

In fighting the French, Mexico may have helped change the course of events for the United States. Likewise, the success of our battle with illegal immigration won't only depend on what we do, but also on the actions of those countries that regularly -- whether willingly or unwillingly -- export their citizens here.

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested some 600 illegal immigrants in nine states wanted for crimes. For many of those arrested -- who hailed mostly from Latin America, but also from Asia, Africa and Europe -- it was a familiar scene.

Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2010/05/04/v-print/1613534/sousa-what-cinco-de-mayo-means.html#ixzz0n4aVCXDB