May 5, 2014 § 5 Comments
Cinco de Mayo (May 5th.) is perhaps the biggest mystery of the American holiday calendar. It is an enigma for almost everyone in the United States: Native citizens with no Mexican background wonder why, as a nation, we celebrate another country’s holiday; Hispanic-Americans are puzzled by the significance of the date; Mexicans living in the United States can hardly believe that American society commemorates a date of their national calendar that is practically non-existent in Mexico; and the rest of the world, people who live outside the United States and non-Mexican Hispanics who live in the United States, find the festivities on this date quite strange.
Historically, on May 5, 1862 the Mexican army faced the French Imperial army of Napoleon III. The French had disembarked in Veracruz harbor along with the British and Spanish almost a year earlier. Their purpose was to collect heavy debts owed by the Mexican government to these three nations after Mexican President Benito Juarez declared a moratorium in which all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years. Mexico had incurred in those debts during a Civil War motivated in part by the expropriation of all church assets ordered by Juarez. Eventually Mexico negotiated with France and Spain and they withdrew, but Napoleon III decided to take advantage of the American Civil War and take this opportunity to establish an empire that would look after the interests of France. The French move was seen favorably by the Confederate army as Napoleon III supported the existence of a slave state.
On May 5 the French army approached the city of Puebla which was defended by the Mexican armed forces under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza. The Mexicans resisted the attack from the forts of Loreto and Guadalupe. After a bloody battle against the better-trained French soldiers, the Mexican army, aided by the machete-armed northern Puebla Zacapoaxtla Indians, prevailed. The Mexican victory was shorted-lived as the French army regrouped and returned a year later when they took over Puebla and eventually Mexico City, establishing the Mexican Empire under Emperor Maximilian I from the Austrian House of Habsburg-Lorraine.
Although President Benito Juarez encouraged the observance of the May 5th. battle as a national holiday, the event is not part of the official holiday calendar. Only the State of Puebla (and parts of the neighboring State of Veracruz) observes this date as a local official holiday. On May 5, the rest of the Mexican society goes about their daily lives as on any other day. It is understandable that Mexico does not celebrate this date as a big holiday; it is not their independence day (Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16), the stories that spread right after the May 5th. battle describing how a handful of Mexican soldiers and Zacapoaxtla Indians had defeated a much larger well-equipped French army were quickly discredited by the truth of what happened: in reality the French had an army that was six-thousand strong, while the Mexicans had a four-thousand men army; hardly a handful battling an imperial army; but more importantly: The Mexicans won the battle but lost the war. Moreover, it was not until April 2, 1867 that Mexico recovered the city of Puebla in a decisive battle that eventually defeated Maximilian’s empire. This was the real victorious battle of Puebla; unfortunately for Mexican history, on April 2 the victorious army that beat the French was led by General Porfirio Díaz who later became a hated political figure because of his hold on the Mexican presidency for 32 years (inexplicably, or perhaps due to a manipulated “official history,” to this day Mexicans still consider him as the great dictator despite the fact that he was followed by a dictatorship that was twice as long: The 70 years of the PRI government)
Now, let’s get back to the United States in 1862, specifically California where there was a large first and second generation Mexican population. Keep in mind that until 1848 when California and other western territories became part of the United States by the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, officially entitled “Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic”, they were part of Mexico; their citizens had fought against Spain during the Mexican War of Independence only three decades before, and many of them became victims of discrimination, embezzlement, and forced labor by their fellow Anglo-American citizens. Most of these individuals did not speak English, were Catholic, and almost all of them were against slavery. In other words, it was in their best interest to see the Confederate army defeated in the American Civil War. Therefore, as Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine describes during an interview about his book: “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” that when he was researching for his book, he reviewed the Spanish language newspapers of California and Oregon from the 1880s, he noticed that the American Civil War and Cinco de Mayo Battle were intertwined: “…I’m seeing now in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east, and the other against the French in the south… In Mexico today, Cinco de Mayo means that the Mexican army defeated the French army,” he continued. “…In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism; and the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues…” (Hayes-Bautista interview with CNN) In early spring 1862 the Union army was unable to move against the Confederates, so this victory in Puebla was a welcomed sign by these Hispanics. Another significant aspect of the Cinco de Mayo battle is that the commander of the Mexican armed forces in Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born on March 24, 1829 in a town by the name of Bahía del Espíritu Santo. The town’s name was later changed to Goliad, and it is located in Texas. That is right: The hero of the Cinco de Mayo battle was a Texan! At the time of his birth the town was in Mexico where it was part of the State of Coahuila y las Tejas, but by the time of the battle, its name was Goliad, a name given by the Texans as an anagram of the hero of the Mexican Independence: Hidalgo, omitting the silent “H”
The Mexican population in the United States identified with Zaragoza, he was one of them who had to leave Mexico and come to Texas if he wanted to visit his hometown. The Cinco de Mayo victory was then memorialized by a network of Hispanic groups in California, Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona called “juntas patrióticas mejicanas.” (Mexican Patriotic Assemblies). While they celebrated the Cinco de Mayo victory every year with parades and other festivities, Mexico continued to be at war with France for another five years. Eventually, the meaning of the holiday changed over time becoming the mythical story of David versus Goliath, and later embodying the U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and the Chicano Power movement of the 1960s.
On recent times this date has been adopted by business people all over the United States and many parts of the world and transformed into a festival, the second largest in the United States just behind St. Patrick’s Day, where people eat Mexican-American food and drink Mexican beer and tequila. Although most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans do not know the history of Cinco de Mayo, despite the fact that many of them do not even know why they get together, have parades and listen to Mexican music on that day, they all seem to share the feeling that this is a uniquely American celebration that has extended to all Hispanics in the United States, Mexican or not, natives and foreigners, and even non-Hispanics; because every year for one day, all Americans celebrate Hispanic food, culture and traditions with pride. It has even reached the White House where President George W. Bush, a former border-state governor with Mexican-American family members, who also speaks Spanish, started a tradition of inviting Hispanics to the White House for this celebration. Because of the increasing importance and participation of Hispanics in America’s mainstream, President Barack Obama has continued the celebration, and it looks like it is here to stay, because after all, Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday, it is an American celebration. I invite you to please share your thoughts about this unique celebration and its significance in the history and culture of the United States.
September 4, 2012 § 2 Comments
This is political convention time in the U.S. where every four years our two political parties come together to nominate their candidate to the presidency of the United States. As I watched the Republican convention on TV last week and I get ready to watch the Democrats this week, my first thought goes to my friends and colleagues who are doing the interpretation this year. Because of the global importance of the American president, these gatherings get coverage, and therefore interpretation, all over the world. Some interpreters work from their home countries via electronic feed and others physically attend the meetings.
In the past I have interpreted for conventions and other political events such as debates, but when I think of my political interpretation work, the one assignment that first comes to mind is my interpretation of President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention four years ago in Denver Colorado.
In January 2008 I received a phone call asking me if I would be interested in working as a broadcast interpreter during the Democratic convention in Colorado. After checking my schedule and agreeing to a fee, I started an assignment that would give me a small role in our country’s history. The first steps were tedious and frustrating as I had to go through an exhaustive security background check because of the event and the people I was going to have access to during the convention. I even remember one occasion when I was working in Hawaii and I received a phone call from the network asking me if I could attend a security meeting the following day. After I explained that I was physically unable to make it in such short notice, they arranged for me to participate via teleconference from my hotel room in Honolulu. That was when it first hit me that it was going to be a huge event. Of course, after we learned that Barack Obama had officially won the primary election, and once we were briefed on the specifics of some of the events by the Democratic National Committee, we knew that this convention was going to be unique because the acceptance speech was going to take place at an outdoor facility; and this was no regular outdoor facility, it was Invesco Field at Mile High, the stadium where the Denver Broncos play football. I immediately thought of the implications this would have for me as an interpreter who now had to interpret a speech given outdoors before a crowd of 80 thousand screaming supporters, as it was broadcasted live to millions of people in the United States. Not to mention the millions who would hear my rendition after the fact as they watched or listened to a newscast on thousands of local stations around the world. All I could think of was what a great opportunity it was for me as an interpreter and as an American, and on top of it I was been handsomely paid for my services. I understood the enormity and relevance of this job, and I understood its importance, regardless of my political inclinations or those of the people who had hired me. Those of you who know me also know that I take on interpretation assignments because of their uniqueness and because of what they pay. I have never applied my own political views or opinions to my interpretation work, in fact, most of you do not even know my political persuasion because that is irrelevant for the work I do. This is one of the reasons why I have repeatedly worked with both political parties. They all know I will do a good and impartial job.
After many, many, many virtual and physical meetings with the network, the Democratic National Committee, the convention committee, the technical support people, security gurus, and many others, it was finally show time. The convention started on a Monday but my assignment was to interpret for candidate Obama who was going to give his speech on Thursday. For this reason, I had time to honor another previous commitment to work somewhere else that Monday. This meant that by the time I arrived in Denver the convention was on its second day. As soon as I arrived in downtown Denver I was ushered to the Pepsi Center for a meeting. The Pepsi Center is an arena where the first three days of the convention took place. I will never forget the first time I entered the arena where the Nuggets and the Avalanche play professional sports. The security was incredible, and once I made it through all the questioning, frisking, and walking through metal detectors, I finally arrived to the top floor where everybody was running around wearing as many credential tags around their necks as I was. All of a sudden I recognized many faces I knew from TV, there was Sam Donaldson, Brian Williams, and Sean Hannity.
After this very long meeting, I went back to my place and debated what to do next. I had two options: I could study more glossaries and practice more Obama speeches or I could kick back and relax. I thought of the many hours I had already spent watching and practicing interpreting Obama’s campaign speeches, his debates with Hillary Clinton, and all the newspaper articles and political briefs I had read for the past several months. I also reflected on my many years of following politics and world affairs on the news and in person; I thought of all the other politicians I had previously interpreted for: George W. Bush, John Kerry, John McCain, Bob Dole, Richard Gephardt, Bill Richardson, Jesse Jackson, and many more, and I came to the realization that I was well prepared, that I had been preparing for this moment all my professional life, and I concluded that this assignment was just like all others. After these private reflections I decided to do the latter: Take a break and relax. That evening I went back to the Pepsi Center to visit the booth, talk to the other interpreters that were working the rest of the convention, and to get more acquainted with the technical people who would work the booth with me on Thursday night.
This was fun. I met some great interpreters from all over, watched part of the session and got familiar with the equipment we were going to use at the stadium for the acceptance speech. I even got to meet Senator Ted Kennedy who came to the booth to say hi to our next-door neighbor TV anchorman Jim Lehrer. Wednesday went by very fast. I spent most of the day fielding phone calls from many of my friends and colleagues who wanted to wish me luck (and some of them wanted to know how I got the gig. You know how this is)
Finally on Thursday morning I went to a last meeting at the Pepsi Center where the crew was already tearing apart the stage. During this morning meeting Senator Obama stopped by to say hi to everybody at the meeting (all 300 of us) After the meeting, as we were breaking for lunch before getting on the buses that were going to take us to Invesco Field, my producer approached me and asked me if I could amend my contract and interpret for one more politician besides the acceptance speech. They wanted me to interpret for New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who was famous for discarding written speeches and going with whatever came to his mind. After some fee negotiating and other conditions to guarantee I was fresh for the main speech I accepted, so now I had two assignments instead of one.
Getting through security at the stadium was an excruciating experience, but definitely nothing compared to the hours the delegates and attendees had to endure on their feet waiting to clear security. My credentials made me look like I was wearing a cowbell but they helped this time. Once at the booth it became very clear how difficult it was going to be to listen and to interpret. Are you familiar with the stadium-type of sound system? That is what we had, well almost what we had. I went into the booth and sat down, stared at the console before me, looked at the TV monitor on my desk, and I said to myself: This is between you and this microphone. Nobody else counts. Forget about all those listening out there. Next I worked with my tech guy on the signs I like to use from the booth. Once he memorized them I moved on to other things. As the network people brought me water and asked what I wanted for dinner (and I declined as I did not want to risk having any problems during my rendition) I inquired about Obama’s speech. My producer said that we did not have it yet but it would be coming very soon. Time went by and it was time to interpret for Governor Richardson. As expected, he followed the text of his speech for the first two lines and then he improvised. I honestly had no problem because I had worked with him in the past and I had lived in his State, so many of his references were familiar to me. Once he finished I asked for Obama’s speech once again. The answer was the same; it will be here very soon.
Well, the speech was not there yet when they announced Senator Obama and he went on stage. As he was on stage walking from one end of that Greek structure they built on the football field saying “thank you” many times, I finally hear that my printer in the booth is going. The speech started to come in. I furiously grabbed the pages as they were coming out. It was too long. Way too-many pages. At that point I made an executive decision. Just see how many pages to get an idea of how long the speech is going to be, then, put it aside and just concentrate and interpret as he is delivering the speech. That is what I did. If you have interpreted for President Obama you know that it is very difficult to interpret his speeches (even when it may not seem like it is)
My strategy worked very well. I just stayed with the speaker and interpreted the entire thing. Sometimes closing my eyes, sometimes looking at the monitor, occasionally looking at my sound engineer to make some adjustments. To be honest with you, I never looked at the stage downstairs while I was working. Finally after this was all over I left the stadium very happy and satisfied with my work. That night, as I was packing to go to Cancun the following morning on a well-deserved vacation, I thought of how lucky I was to be hired to interpret that particular event. The first time that an African-American had accepted a big party nomination for president of the United States. I did not know whether he was going to win or lose the November election, but it did not matter, circumstances had allowed me to be a part of history. Regardless of my politics, regardless of whom I voted for, in some part of the Spanish-speaking world my voice will be linked to this major event forever. I would love to read some of your stories about how you have prepared for, and rendered, some difficult or relevant interpretation during your career.