The Oregonian: What is Cinco de Mayo? Portland-area Mexican chefs explain what the holiday means to them

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Photo by Stephanie Yao Long/The Oregonian

The history behind Cinco de Mayo, which marks an unlikely Mexican victory over France, is, frankly, a little dry.

In the early 1860s, after years of wars, the Mexican Treasury was bankrupt, forcing the government to suspend all its foreign debts. France, Britain and Spain sent their navies to Veracruz to demand payment. Britain and Spain negotiated and withdrew, but France, seeking to carve an empire out of Mexican territory, stormed Veracruz with an army of 6,000, then made their way toward Mexico City. In Puebla, a skimpy Mexican army of 2,000 confronted the Frenchmen, then considered the greatest fighting force in the world, and somehow won.

To commemorate the victory, public schools are closed throughout Mexico. But for many citizens, the fifth of May is just another day of the week.

It’s a different story in the United States, where the holiday marks a chance to celebrate Mexican culture with parades, parties, folk dancing and food. For others, the day — often confused as Mexican independence day, actually September 16 — is an excuse to drink margaritas and cervezas.

To get a better sense of Cinco de Mayo’s significance, we spoke with five Mexican-American chefs and restaurant managers in Portland about what the day means to them:

Lucy De Leon: Manager, Tortilleria y Tienda de Leon’s

Lucy De Leon doesn’t remember ever celebrating Cinco de Mayo with her family. And it wasn’t until she was older, in a Spanish history class, the last class she needed in order to graduate, that she finally learned what Cinco de Mayo celebrated.

De Leon was born and raised in Weslaco, Texas and moved to Portland with her parents Anselmo and Francisca De Leon when she was 10 years old. Her parents opened Tortilleria y Tienda De Leon’s in 1999, an East Portland destination for its guisado tacos. She said she’s taught her kids about the day, but doesn’t recall ever learning about it or hearing about it being taught in Portland schools.

“It’s become more of a big deal over here, but I remember in Texas it wasn’t,” De Leon said. “For me now, Cinco de Mayo means I’m super busy because I get slumped with catering orders.”

Tortilleria y Tienda De Leon: 16223 N.E. Glisan St., 503-255-4356, salsalocas.com

Maylin Chavez: chef/owner, Olympia Oyster Bar

For Chavez, who runs North Portland’s Olympia Oyster Bar and was born and raised in Tijuana, Cinco de Mayo is a welcome opportunity to share the history, heritage and culture of Mexico. Growing up, Cinco de Mayo was celebrated with marches, readings about the battle and get-togethers around food.

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is “more about celebrating Mexican food, drink, music, folklore a little, less about the history,” Chavez said. “On some levels it became an excuse to get drunk, but I think more and more people are trying to steer away from that and move toward having a day to celebrate this culture and all the beautiful things they’ve contributed to the world.”

To commemorate the day, she plans on serving a handful of specials at Olympia Oyster Bar — which already has a Mexican streak with its mussels in a spicy Veracruzan broth, daily ceviche and pan-seared tostada — and sharing some of the history of the day on social media.

Olympia Oyster Bar: 4214 N. Mississippi Ave., 503-841-6316, oobpdx.com

Luis Contreras: formerly of Oba, now runs modern Mexican pop-up Chelo

As a kid in Jalisco, Luis Contreras remembers going to Cinco de Mayo ferias — festivals — with his grandmother. He remembers the bumper cars and baby ferris wheels, the flag lowering ceremony in downtown Guadalajara, and the tamales his mother used to make.

Contreras, who most recently ran the Pearl District’s Oba Restaurante, now spends his time focusing on Chelo, the Mexican pop-up named for that grandmother, who ran a small restaurant in Guadalajara, Jalisco. The menu — a five-course selection of dishes similar to those at two San Francisco restaurants he worked at, Mamacita and Padrecito — most recently served smoked scallop tostadas with chioggia beets and slow-roasted chicken enchiladas with mole rojo and fried Brussels sprouts.

“With the whole wall thing, it’s more of a reason to be a little prouder of being Mexican,” Contreras said. “That’s what I try to do now with the pop-ups, that this is what I’m about, how I grew up as a kid and have it be as meaningful as possible and portray that it’s not just tacos, there’s deeper roots.”

For more information about Contreras’ pop-up, go to chelopdx.com

Amalia Vazquez: owner, Tierra del Sol at the Portland Mercado

Cinco de Mayo looked very different to Oaxaca-native Amalia Vazquez, who lived for 15 years in Puebla, the site of the famous battle.

Vazquez, who now owns and operates the Tierra del Sol food cart at the Portland Mercado, described the city’s day-long celebration as a “spectacle, with people lining the streets for extravagant parades and the President and armed forces in attendance for performances throughout the city.

“When I came to the United States, it was interesting to me that it was such a big deal here,” Vazquez wrote in an email. “Especially since it’s more important than September 16, the Independence of Mexico. In Mexico it’s the opposite. Not a lot of states make a big show like Puebla on Cinco de Mayo.”

Tierra del Sol: 7238 S.E. Foster Road, portlandmercado.org/tierradelsol

Albert Mendoza: General Manager, Tamale Boy

“Cinco de Mayo in Mexico, it’s not a huge thing,” Mendoza said. “It’s a day that we do remember because of what it means to us, but it’s not our biggest holiday, not as big as Independence Day, Mother’s Day or Day of the Dead.”

Mendoza moved to Portland when he was 10-years-old from the Mexican state of Morelos. He has managed the floor at Tamale Boy since the restaurant opened in 2014. This year, the restaurant will be running tequila specials such as margaritas and palomas as well as hosting live music and food throughout the day.

“We don’t get busy on Mexican Independence day,” Mendoza said. “I think Cinco de Mayo is like St. Patrick’s Day. All people can think about is going out and partying.”

Tamale Boy: 1764 N.E. Dekum St., 503-206-8022; and 668 N. Russell St., 503-477-6706; tamaleboy.com

— Samantha Bakall

Click here to read on oregonlive.com

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