Why do Americans celebrate Labor Day in September?

August 28, 2014 § 11 Comments

Dear Colleagues,

For those of you who are reading this blog in the United States: Happy Labor Day!

Yes, Monday is Labor Day in the United States and we celebrate it as a major holiday; one of those “real” holidays when the banks are closed, the mail is not delivered, and kids stay home from school. I have been asked many times by my foreign friends and colleagues why is it that we celebrate Labor Day in September instead of May 1st. like most countries in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere do. Then, the second question that always follows the one above is: “But the labor movement celebrated with an international holiday on May 1st. commemorates the events of Chicago in 1886…”

The fact is that most Americans have never heard of the events of 1886 when a peaceful labor rally in Haymarket Square in Chicago suddenly turned violent after police arrived and ordered the meeting to end. A bomb was thrown into the crowd, and the police started to shoot and beat the crowd. In a matter of minutes eight people were killed and over 120 police and civilians were injured. The police seized the opportunity to arrest eight anarchists, that perhaps today would be referred to as labor rights activists, and the authorities charged them with conspiracy to commit murder even though the police had sparked the riot. Seven of the eight arrested were sentenced to death, and one of the jurors at their trial was a relative of one of the dead police officers. This is how the labor movement started in the United States. For a long time the media and government were firmly allied with the business community while labor organizers were viewed as criminals.

Today in the United States labor unions are controversial, and with good reason. Many of them have been run as criminal enterprises, with deep connections to organized crime; many operate in a blatantly coercive and undemocratic fashion. Union demands and strong-arm tactics have crippled some American industries and limited the number of jobs. In today’s America the unions get publicity when they step up to defend a member who should be punished, when the baseball players’ union fights suspension of players who have cheated by using steroids, or when the union protects incompetent teachers in public schools. There are many who support organized labor, although it seems to be less people every day, and labor rights are a good thing that America needed in the 19th. century and still needs today; however, the real perception (well-deserved in many cases) that unions are troublemakers, and the national fight against communism from the cold war days, have put these events in Chicago at the end of the 19th. century in the forgotten corner of American history.

Our Labor Day holiday is very different from most around the world. Instead of commemorating a tragic event, we celebrate those who have contributed to America’s social and economic achievements with their work. Since 1882 we have celebrated labor on the first Monday in September as a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of the United States. Labor Day has come to be considered by most Americans as the end of summer; the last barbecue of the year, the beginning of football season, the start of a new school year.   This weekend millions of Americans will gather around the grill, at the shopping malls, and football fields, to officially end the summer of 2014. It is perhaps the second most American of all holidays (after Thanksgiving that is) because it describes the mind and spirit of the American people. Regardless of your political persuasion and your support, love, disdain or indifference towards organized labor, the first Monday in September is a holiday when Americans decided to celebrate work and creativity while most of the world chose to commemorate a tragic event that happened on American soil but is unknown to an overwhelming majority of the American people. I hope this brief explanation of the reasons why Americans are staying home on Monday celebrating a holiday with the same name as another holiday celebrated abroad, but with a very different meaning and motivation behind it, helps you understand better the United States. Now, without bringing up any political views on the labor movement, I ask you to please share with us when it is that you observe Labor Day in your respective countries and why it is a holiday there.

Is Cinco de Mayo an American holiday?

May 5, 2014 § 5 Comments

Dear colleagues:

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.

What do Americans celebrate on Presidents’ Day and how do you spell it?

February 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

Dear colleagues:

As it happens with other American holidays, many colleagues who live abroad, and others who live in the United States but grew up somewhere else, have asked me the meaning of the holiday we celebrate in the United States on the third Monday in February.  As you know, the United States is a federation of fifty states and each state has its own legislation and decision-making process.  As a result of this system Americans have two types of holidays: Those that are observed in all fifty states called federal holidays, and those that are only observed in a specific state.  The latter ones are referred to as state holidays.  By comparison with other countries the United States has very few holidays.  The one observed in February is the third one on the calendar and it is just one of two holidays that commemorate the birth of a person (the other one is in January to honor the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr.)

All government offices close on federal holidays but the rest of the American people go to work on many of them.  The February holiday is one of those that the majority of the citizens of the United States will commemorate by going to work.

The U.S. has many founding fathers, all heroes and authors of the great country that we Americans enjoy today, but there is only one “father of the country.”  There is only one George Washington.  Because George Washington was born in the American state of Virginia on February 22, and he is the father of the country, in 1879 The United States Congress determined that all government offices in Washington, D.C. should remain closed to observe his birthday. In 1885 this was expanded to all federal government offices all over the United States.  On January 1, 1971 Congress passed the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” and among other federal holidays, it shifted this one from Washington’s actual birthday to the third Monday in February.  As an interesting footnote I should mention that this piece of legislation moved the holiday to a day between February 15 and 21, so the observance never coincides with Washington’s real birthday on the 22nd.  For many years the holiday was known as “Washington’s Birthday.”

Abraham Lincoln, another beloved American hero, and our 16th. President, was born on February 12.  It was impossible to have two separate holidays to honor these two great men during the same calendar month, so for a long time Lincoln’s birthday was ignored.  A draft of the “Uniform Monday Holiday Act” would have renamed “Washington’s Birthday” as “Presidents’ Day” to honor the birth of both beloved presidents.  This is the reason why the observed holiday falls between both birthdays but it never falls on either.  The proposed name change failed in Congress and the holiday continued as “Washington’s Birthday.”  Lincoln’s birthday did not become a federal holiday, but several states, among them Connecticut, Missouri, and Illinois adopted it as a state holiday and observe it on February 12, his actual birthday.

By the mid-1980s retailers and advertisement agencies started to refer to the holiday sales during this time-period as “Presidents’ Day” and the American people would soon follow suit.  Officially the holiday has never been named “Presidents’ Day.”  In fact, some state legislatures have chosen to honor Washington, Lincoln, and other heroes differently during the month of February. For example, the state of Massachusetts celebrates a state holiday called “Washington’s Birthday” on the same day that the federal government observes the federal “Washington’s Birthday,” and in May it celebrates a state holiday named “Presidents Day” honoring the presidents of the United States who came from Massachusetts: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy.  In fact, the holiday falls on Kennedy’s birthday: May 29.  In Virginia where George Washington was born, the federal holiday is legally referred to as “George Washington’s Day.”  In Alabama the federal holiday commemorates Washington and Thomas Jefferson despite the fact that the latter president was born in April, and in New Mexico state government is open on the official federal “Presidents’ Day” because they observe it as a state-paid holiday on the Friday after Thanksgiving also known as “Black Friday.”

Now that we know that the third Monday in February is known as “Presidents’ Day” and it also serves the unofficial role of honoring Abraham Lincoln, and now that we understand that although a federal holiday, almost nobody but government employees have the day off on “Washington’s Birthday” we need to talk about the correct spelling of this official federal holiday known to all Americans by its unofficial name: “Presidents’ Day.”

Today people refer to the holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and “Presidents Day.”  Both versions are considered correct by American dictionaries such as “Webster’s Third International Dictionary” and “The Chicago Manual of Style.”  As the use of attributive nouns has become common in the United States, “Presidents Day” has become the most popular term.  Of course, the spelling “President’s Day” is only acceptable when specifically referring to the birthday of Washington, and Washington alone.  So now you know what to do the next time they ask you to explain what Americans celebrate on the third Monday in February, whether or not you are willing to work on “Presidents Day,” and how to spell the name of this exceptionally unique and diverse holiday.  Please feel free to share your comments about the holiday or the way it should be spelled.

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