Scott H. is a Dean of Students and former high school Spanish teacher. He began traveling with EF Tours in 2001 and has led dozens of student tours to various Spanish-speaking countries. Scott strongly believes that student travel builds self-confidence and inspires students to develop and work towards long-term goals.
Millions of Americans are preparing to travel to spend time with family and friends and celebrate July 4th. Like many fellow Michiganders, my family and I make the trip “up north” to the family cottage located on a beautiful inland lake called Lake St. Helen. For the record, when we say “up north,” we might actually be heading south, east, or west. It’s a phrase that is understood to mean that we are going camping or to a cabin or cottage that is usually near some form of water. Although Michigan is mostly known for being bordered by four of the five of Great Lakes, it is also home to nearly 11,000 inland lakes, or 65,000 inland lakes and ponds according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. A person in the state is never more than six miles from a natural water source. That’s probably why Michigan is one of the leading U.S. States in recreational boating, and would also explain why I’m preparing this blog on my boat while anchored at the sandbar.
I like to use this relaxing time to think and reflect. Since it’s summertime and I’m a teacher, my thoughts often take me back to my classroom and the school year that just ended. I wonder what my students are doing to celebrate the holiday. I wonder how much they truly understand about the events that led up to the independence of our great country and how much they appreciate our freedom and rights that we are so fortunate to have. (Thank you so much to anybody that has served, is currently serving, or will someday serve!) Like my boat slowly drifting away from our spot on the sandbar, my mind does the same. Suddenly I’m thinking about my Spanish classes and a common discussion that takes place every year when we cover a unit on Mexico. When we discuss Mexico gaining independence from Spain, I always ask them, “When is Mexico’s Independence Day?” Without hesitation, the majority responds, “Cinco de Mayo.” And then the teaching begins.
Mexico’s Independence Day is actually celebrated on September 16th. It is the most important national patriotic day celebrated in Mexico. On this day in 1810, a Mexican priest Miguel Hidalgo, who was born from Spanish parents, rang the bell in his small church and standing alongside several other conspirators gave the famous “Grito de Dolores,” or “Cry of Dolores.” Dolores is actually the name of the town that this speech was given, but ironically, the word in Spanish also means “pain.” This battle cry rallied everyone and called the people together to fight for liberty from Spain. This was the beginning of the Independence War, which lasted just over 10 years until Mexico finally gained Independence in 1821.
Students immediately ask, “So then what is Cinco de Mayo?” A former colleague of mine, who was our U.S. History teacher, often joked that Cinco de Mayo refers to a day in which a large Spanish ship carrying an enormous shipment of mayonnaise sank to the bottom of the ocean. I’m pleased to report that few of my students actually believe this nonsense. Instead, they learn that Cinco de Mayo means the 5th of May and signifies a historic day in Mexican history in which a small, undermanned Mexican Army managed to decisively defeat a French army that was not only twice the size, but also considered by many to be the best army in the world. TIME magazine wrote, “the Puebla victory came to symbolize unity and pride for what seemed like a Mexican David defeating a French Goliath.” Many people fail to realize that roughly a year later the French army regrouped, expanded in number, and defeated the Mexican army. The French actually went on to overtake Mexico City and establish control of the country. It wasn’t until three years later that the Civil War in the United States came to an end and the U.S. enforced the Monroe Doctrine and helped its neighbors to the south by helping remove French occupation.
My next question is always the same. “So why do so many people confuse Cinco de Mayo with Mexico’s Independence Day?” After a lengthy discussion in which I engage students by offering clues and hints, we are able to find a likely answer. In our country, the 4th of July is not only a celebration of gaining our independence, but it is also a celebration of being an American. We don’t run around cheering that we defeated the British. It’s less about the battle and more about what we have gained from it. It is a celebration of being “proud to be an American.” We celebrate freedom. We unite with family and friends. We display our patriotism by waving American flags. We show our pride for our country with grand parades and glorious firework displays. We are often free from work and free to do as we choose. Cinco de Mayo allows Mexicans to celebrate much of the same. On this day, Mexicans celebrate their love and pride for their country. They celebrate with food, parades, waving the Mexican flag, fancy cars, and sometimes fireworks. They celebrate their freedom and independence that eventually resulted from the incredible defeat of the remarkable French army in this one incredible and important battle. Both the 4th of July and the 5th of May celebrate the defeat of respective adversaries, but more importantly, they both celebrate the deeper meaning behind these victories and the long-lasting impact of patriotism in each of these countries.
Suddenly a huge wave crashes into my boat and I’m quickly removed from the past events in my classroom and return to the present. I scan my surroundings once again and not much has changed. I now begin to wonder about the people around me as they spend a beautiful day out on the water. Do they take the time to truly understand the historical importance of the 4th of July? I hope that they gained an even greater perspective by learning from the struggles of others around the world, including the events of Cinco de Mayo, Mexico’s Independence Day, as all of the events currently happening around the globe. Our most recent chapters written in history books that will be read by students that were either not yet born or too young to remember will undoubtedly teach that our freedom and independence should never be taken for granted.
On this Independence Day, as you celebrate in one of many traditional fashions, I encourage you to take some time to reflect on what you know about the history behind this important day and what it has come to mean to you. After all, it’s much deeper than a few days off from work, grand firework displays, cookouts, or a day out on the lake. It’s actually the reason we are able to enjoy all of these things.
Want to immerse yourself in U.S. history or learn about another country’s culture? Check out our North American and international tours.
Editor’s note (2020): This piece has been updated for clarity, accuracy, and relevance.