Cinco de Mayo e Jalisco

The holiday celebrating a victorious military battle (not Independence) that’s become a celebration of Mexican culture (and especially Jalisco culture).

In 1861 after multiple wars, a nearly bankrupt Mexico was in debt to Britain, France, and Spain. President Benito Juárez instituted a temporary moratorium on foreign debt payments which France used as a justification for invasion. France wanted to expand their empire by seizing Mexico, and Mexico’s unpaid debt was an excuse to do so. The French fleet launched an invasion at Veracruz and marched westward toward Mexico City. On the way to the capital the Mexican army engaged the French near the town of Puebla.

Despite being outnumbered 2 to 1, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. This is what Cinco de Mayo celebrates – a Mexican victory over the French. Unfortunately the Mexicans eventually lost the war and in 1864 the French installed the Austrian born Emperor Maximilian I as ruler of Mexico. By 1867 though the Mexicans rose up and took back the country, executing Maximilian on June 19, 1867.

General Ignacio Zaragoza led the Mexican forces to a victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla.

Cinco de Mayo … nos Estados Unidos

Today Cinco de Mayo is more popular in the United States than Mexico. Outside of the state of Puebla most of Mexico pays little attention to the holiday (which in Mexico is not called Cinco de Mayo of course but is “El Día de la Batalla de Puebla” or “The Day of the Battle of Puebla”). One reason for its popularity in the US is that the Mexican-American community uses the holiday as a cultural holiday honoring their Mexican heritage, much like what Irish-Americans do with Saint Patrick’s Day. It’s become more of a celebration of Mexican culture than of a military victory over the French.

Many of the things people associate with all of Mexico really come from just the state of Jalisco.

Jalisco es Mexico

On the Pacific coast of Mexico, sits the state of Jalisco. While Jalisco had little to do with the Battle of Puebla it has a lot to do with modern Cinco de Mayo and what we think of when we think of Mexico. The first mass produced tequila, mariachi music, the iconic folk dresses with large ribboned skirts, jaripeo bull riding, wide-brimmed sombreros, and the national dance “Jarabe Tapatío” (“Mexican Hat Dance”) all come from the state of Jalisco. As a result the state’s motto is “Jalisco es Mexico” (“Jalisco is Mexico”).

Similar to how many of the things people associate with Germany really just come from the Bavarian region, many of the cultural elements that people associate with Mexico are just from the state of Jalisco. As such every Cinco de Mayo Jalisco’s contributions to the Mexican cultural identity loom large as they appear in homes and restaurants around the United States as people celebrate Mexico.

Added info: Mexican Independence day is called “Grito de Dolores” (“The Cry of Dolores”) which is when Catholic priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla gave a speech to his parishioners and rang the church bell as a call to arms. This was the 1810 start of the Mexican War of Independence and is celebrated every September 16th.

Poinsettia

The Mexican plant that has become a standard part of Christmas (and isn’t poisonous).

The poinsettia comes from Mexico & Guatemala and, in its untamed form, grows to be fairly gangly and around 10ft tall. Over the centuries it’s been selectively bred to be about 2ft tall with very dense foliage. The most well-known characteristic of the poinsettia is of course the bright red leaves along the top of the plant. These red leaves are not flowers but are the bracts of the poinsettia – specialized leaves that are different than the rest of the plant (the actual flowers, aka. the cyathia, are the small buds at the center of the red bracts). These special leaves are green until late autumn when, in the cooler shorter days, they turn red.

Poinsett to Poinsettia

The plant had already been known & used by the Aztecs for dyes and medicine but it came to the attention of the Western world through US Minister to Mexico (and amateur botanist) Joel Roberts Poinsett. Specimens had already been collected around 1803 by German scientific superstar Alexander von Humboldt, but it was re-discovered by Poinsett who introduced the plant to the US.

In 1828 Poinsett sent plants & seeds to Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia (contrary to internet rumoring, there is no definitive proof that he sent poinsettia plants home to his native South Carolina). In 1835 Scottish horticulturalist and active member of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society Robert Buist named the plant the Euphorbia Poinsettia in honor of Poinsett. Buist also helped introduce the poinsettia to Europe.

Named for US Minister to Mexico Joel Roberts Poinsett, the poinsettia has been a standard part of Christmas for over a century.

Paul Ecke Ranch

Over the next century the poinsettia was cultivated into different varieties – shorter, taller, different colors, different patterns. The Paul Ecke Ranch of California have cultivated and sold poinsettias since the early 20th century. Having successfully produced cultivars which were more beautiful, more compact, and sturdier than other varieties, the Ecke family began to create and then dominate the market.

For decades they would send free poinsettias from November through December to a variety of media outlets. Ecke Rach poinsettias appeared on the Tonight Show, Bob Hope Christmas specials, the Dinah Shore Show, in magazines such as Ladies Home Journal and Better Homes & Gardens – all of which furthered the popularity and demand for poinsettias at Christmas. Today the Ecke Ranch (who were sold to the Agribio Group in 2012) is the largest poinsettia producer in the world with about a 50% share of the global market and around 70% of the domestic US market.

That Plant is … Safe

Poinsettias are not poisonous. While you or your pets probably shouldn’t eat the leaves of a poinsettia, you wouldn’t be struck dead if you did. The myth that they are deadly most likely goes back to 1919 when a child in Hawaii died of poisoning which was wrongly attributed to the poinsettia leaf. Research has shown that you would have to eat hundreds of leaves to produce mild irritation or vomiting at most. Given that the leaves are unpalatable and very bitter it’s unlikely you would eat enough to suffer the consequences.