Since we celebrate “Cinco de Mayo” today, it seems appropriate to mention the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American History Collection at the University of Texas at Austin. It contains thousands of volumes and documents related to the history and culture of Mexico.
Graduate school seems light years away where I found myself buried deep into the caverns of the Benson Library. Where else could I read a 15th century Spanish ship manifest document and at the same time read an original document from the 20th Century Mexican poet and writer, Octavio Paz (Octavio Paz Lozano). By the way, the Benson Library is celebrating Paz’s 100th birthday right now.
The Nettie Lee Benson Library has one of the finest collections of Latin American manuscripts, books, documents, and artifacts in the world – and it all started by a Texas lady with lots of big Texas energy, persistence, and vision – Miss Nettie Lee Benson.
I was very privileged to meet Professor Benson while taking her last graduate seminar offered in the history department. Dr. Benson was about passion – passion for learning and passion for understanding Latin American history and culture, particularly Mexican. At 84 years of age, Nettie Lee Benson was full of that. Her body was holding her back a bit (heart trouble), but her mind was still very sharp and very observant. Here’s a mini-biography of Benson.
Nettie Lee Benson was an outspoken character who had the chutzpa to walk into the University of Texas at Austin President’s Office one day and request thousands of dollars of funding so she could travel to Latin America to find and purchase items for the initial library collection. If I can recall the story she told in class, it was simply a matter of appealing to the university president’s sense of pride after she told him that a certain university in New York already had set aside about $50,000 for a Latin American collection. Should Texas be out done by New York? No way, she got the money.
The Nettie Lee Benson collection demonstrates its importance by the many international dignitaries that visit the collection every year, including King Juan Carlos of Spain, whom I personally saw walking through the library one day. Of course, you can find lots of students and “regular folks” roaming through the place too. You can read all about it here.
What is “Cinco de Mayo?” Most know something about it, but many are either ill informed or just wrong. For one thing, “Cinco de Mayo” is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day is actually September 16, 1821 where Mexico transitioned from “New Spain,” to the “Mexican Empire.”
So what exactly does “Cinco de Mayo” mean to Hispanic culture and to Mexico? The U.S. retail and restaurant establishment has been using it as an unofficial holiday so you can buy something and have a few beers at the local watering hole. Other than an excuse to party and drink some Mexican tequila and beer and eat tamales, it’s a special point of pride for the Mexican people both in Mexico and the U.S.A. and particularly the Mexican state of Puebla where the actual historical event occurred.
Cinco de May (May 5th), 1862 marks the date for Mexico and its citizens when, against all odds in a decisive battle, the Mexican army defeated the French which had one of the most professional armies of that time. More accurately it should be called the “Battle of Puebla Day” or the “Battle of Cinco de Mayo”. It’s a day that Mexicans are proud of because they defeated a professional better equipped army twice their size and since that day no other European military power has invaded Mexico.
Some scholars say that if Mexico had lost the war, it is conceivable that the French may have used Mexico as a base to supply the Confederate Army during the U. S. Civil War. History may have been much different. If you want to learn more about this “holiday” and you can’t get to the Benson collection, just check it out your at local bookstore. Also, there is a film“Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla” (2013) on Netflix or on Amazon.com. The movie uses a bit of dramatic license, but it makes the point.
In the U.S., “Cinco de Mayo” is actually a Mexican-American celebration of culture and heritage. Only the states of Puebla and Veracruz in Mexico celebrate it as an official holiday, although public schools throughout Mexico close school for that day. Mostly, the Mexican-Americans celebrate it with pride concerning their culture and heritage. So it is in the U.S. where “Cinco de Mayo” has gained its major significance.
The celebration of “Cinco de Mayo” actually started during the Civil War in the western and southwestern United States where you would find large concentrations of Mexican-Americans. The celebration now has spread throughout the entire U.S. and is a point of pride for all Mexican-Americans. The “holiday” gained momentum in the 1940’s and has grown in popularity since. The U.S. Congress issued a resolution on June 7, 2005 that asked the U.S. President to proclaim that “Cinco de Mayo” was a celebration for all Americans.
So here we are in 2014 celebrating “Cinco de Mayo” again. If you haven’t already, get down to your favorite Mexican restaurant and celebrate with the rest of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. I’m heading that way myself today. Miss Nettie Lee Benson would have certainly encourage that.
Here’s some Mariachi music to get the party started.