30 May 2010

Mexican resentment lingers over Canada’s visa 'insult'

An RBD video filmed in 2005 in the Alberta Rockies

The matter of obtaining a visa for travel to Canada continues generating discontent in Mexico, some 10 months after the measure was imposed in a sudden and sloppy manner to stem a growing stream of bogus refugee claims filed by Mexicans.

President Felipe Calderón, as expected, raised the issue while visiting Canada last week. The Canadian government acknowledged shortcomings in the new process, but maintained the visa requirements would remain in tact.

Opinions on the visa issue vary in Mexico. Some consider it an insult. Others view it as a waste of time and money since they have few ties to Canada and would seldom visit. A few waiting in line outside the Canadian Embassy for their visa last summer told me they had no objection to the travel restrictions, but expressed displeasure with the seemingly lack of organization. One student from an expensive private university and frequent traveller to Vancouver told me she endorsed the idea, saying, "There are already too many Mexicans in Canada."

Hard feelings linger for many, however.

One friend, whose husband is Canadian, reported having to submit a letter from her in-laws, vouching for her visit - even though she had been a frequent visitors. If travel to Canada weren't so necessary, she says, "I wouldn't do it."

The fallout of the hastily imposed visa could unravel nearly two decades of promotional activities on the part of Canadian education and tourism officials, who successfully had promoted the country as an affordable, not-so-distant destination for tourism and study abroad excursions. The Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) even brought the sappy, teen telenovela Rebelde to the Alberta Rockies for a week of episodes, while the pop group RBD filmed a video on Lake Louise.

In a way, Canada became cool for many Mexicans - an odd feat for a country considered nice, but dull in many parts of the world.

The CTC figures that tourist visits to Canada have dropped by 33 percent since the visa requirements were imposed as the visa, a poor economy, sinking peso and surging Canadian dollar all combined to diminish interest in travelling north.

Signs of diminished interest in Canada quickly became apparent. AeroMéxico canceled its Canadian routes earlier this year - which it blamed on the visa - as the website Flightglobal reported the airline mostly served Mexican travellers on its Mexico City-Toronto and Mexico City-Montreal routes. Mexicana, meanwhile, has offered more seat sales on its flights to Canada and dropped its Mexico City-Edmonton route.

The exact economic impact of the visa is tough to gauge, but the CTC reported that over the past decade Mexico had been a focus country and, of the countries with CTC offices, Mexico had produced some of the best growth figures. The CTC put the annual the growth figure at 14 percent over the past decade. The CTC also classified Mexican visitors as "high value" as they are known for spending big while travelling abroad and are used to leaving the country for shopping trips. (Witness the glut of malls in such unglamorous destinations as the Río Grande Valley that cater almost exclusively to Mexicans, including Mexicans from places such as Mexico City.)

Expect discontent over the visa issue to continue simmering. In the meantime, here's my latest on the issue for Canwest News Service.

27 May 2010

In God's hands?


In Colonia El Sabinal, a traditional Mennonite Colony in the Chihuahua desert, there are no phone lines, no cellular signals and no electrical lines. Residents travel by horse and buggy, mostly speak Low German and generally have large families. There's also little security, resulting in criminal groups - possibly affiliated with drug cartels or possibly just taking advantage of the local lawlessness - pillaging businesses on the colony.

Now, some of the traditionally Mennonites are looking to move on, although violence isn't the only factor - or even the original factor for looking at land in other parts of Mexico and beyond.

Ever-encroaching modernity is one factor: Residents of other traditional colonies in the area to the southwest of Ciudad Juarez fled for Bolivia when electricity arrived. Other factors for departing included water and land shortages on the colonies, which were founded over the past 25 years by Mennonites looking for their own land; the original colonies other parts of Chihuahua and Durango had already filled up.

Now violence is factoring into the decision to move on, although no one is predicting a mass exodus and many Mennonites cite their deep religious beliefs and acceptance God's will as sources of strength during difficult times.

I visited a pair of colonies in northwestern Chihuahua last month to write on the situation confronting Mexico's Mennonites and to explain how some of them - descendants of Mennonites leaving the Canadian Prairie in the 1920s - have Canadian passports and might just look north if the violence worsens even more.

Here's the story, published in the Editorial Observer section of the Ottawa Citizen.

Calderón visit as much about domestic politics as visa-free travel

What isn't being said about President Felipe Calderón's globetrotting ...

Calderón visit as much about domestic politics as visa-free travel


MEXICO CITY -- Mexican President Calderon publicly scolded his American hosts during a visit to Washington last week, when used a speech to a joint session of Congress to condemn an anti-illegal immigrant measure recently passed in Arizona and lax gun laws that facilitate the southward flow of weapons into Mexico.

The condemnation drew scorn in the United States, but played well with the domestic audience back home - especially in the political class.

It’s uncertain if Calderon will bring a similar tough approach to Ottawa this week, his first trip to the capital since the federal government imposed visa restrictions last July on Mexicans heading to Canada.

What is certain, however, is that Calderon brings the same pressing domestic and political concerns to Ottawa as he did to Washington -- even though the visit appears timely: The Canada-Mexico relationship has appeared to be less openly friendly over the past year as the new visa regulations for Mexicans have been poorly received and visits to Canada -- a country that had been an increasingly trendy destination for tourist trips and studying abroad -- have subsequently diminished.

But political analysts say scolding Canada for imposing visa restrictions on Mexicans, instead of fixing a refugee system rife with abuse and bogus claims, would play well with the domestic audience and be an easy way for Calderon to score political points at a time his National Action Party (PAN) has been performing poorly on the local level and gubernatorial elections are underway in 12 of the country's 31 states. The outcome of those election could shape the final two and a half years of his presidency as he tries to achieve reforms to labor, finance, the political system and the public security apparatus, but confronts a divided Congress and increasing powerful state governors reluctant to cede territorial control over matters of law-and-order .

“He’s going to complain, not in a diplomatic way, but in terms of propaganda, about the need for Mexicans to request a visa,” said Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico in Toluca.

“The only forum he has to promote his agenda … is that he leaves the country," Muñoz added, referring to the traditions of president not openly campaigning in gubernatorial and local contests.

At home, Calderon faces a tough domestic agenda that goes beyond the problems of security and battling the cartels -- a battle that has claimed more than 23,000 lives since he took office in December 2006.

The Mexican economy, hit hard by the H1N1 outbreak and problems in the United States, dipped by nearly seven per cent in 2009, while the rates of unemployment and poverty have increased.

The 12 state-level elections pose enormous political problems, too.

The resurgent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) -- which governed for 71 years until being deposed by the PAN in 2000 -- could run the table on July 4, further weakening Calderon's administration. It could also add to the PRI's advantage for the 2012 presidential elections as the party already governs 19 states and its governors operate effective political machines for turning out the vote, rule with little transparency and frequently manage social programs for electoral purposes.

“There are many elections in which the PAN is at a disadvantage. He needs … to strengthen his party,” Muñoz said.

“These foreign trips are unavoidable,” he added. “The problem is they’re used for electoral purposes.”

Muñoz expects Calderon to raise the visa issue prominently in Canada -- much as he raised the migration and gun issue in the U.S. Congress.

Others issues on the Canada-Mexico agenda include trade, the expansion of programs for sending temporary and agricultural workers to Canada and Canadian assistance in combating the ongoing security problems in Mexico. The Mexican media is certain to raise the issue of fugitive union boss Napoleon Gomez, who has been residing in Vancouver to avoid charges pertaining to the misappropriation a $55 million trust fund.

But the travel visa still generates some negative headlines and hurt feelings in Mexico and its clumsy and sudden implementation has not been forgotten.

The pop-culture publication “Chilango” summed up the mood at the time of the visa’s implementation with its cheeky front-page admonishment, “Be patriotic and don’t be go to Canada” -- a twist on a common expression disparaging “chilangos,” as Mexico City residents are known.

Muñoz says the visa issue, like any matter pertaining to migration -- a perpetual issue in many downtrodden parts of the country -- would receive the most attention in Mexico and provide Calderon with the best opportunity for building political capital.

“Migration is a permanent issue in Mexico. It continues being an issue capitalized on a lot … it’s a beneficial issue for politicians.”

25 May 2010

PRD Candidate, Gospel singer "Greg" Sánchez detained for alleged cartel ties

Quintana Roo gubernatorial candidate and Gospel singer Gregorio "Greg" Sánchez was detained May 25 after arriving at the Cancún airport from Mexico City.

A press release from the Attorney General's Office (PGR) said Sánchez, the PRD mayor of Benito Juárez - the municipality containing Cancún - was detained for alleged links to "Los Zetas" and the Beltrán Leyva Cartel and "offering information and protection to them." The press release added the detention was by a judge's order, that he was accused of offenses related to organized crime, drugs and the use of illicit funds and he would be locked up in the western state of Nayarit.

Sánchez would we be the most high-profile politician arrested in the ongoing crackdown on drug cartels and organized crime since Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.

Ironically, former Quintana Roo Gov. Ernesto Villanueva Madrid was extradited to the United States earlier this month to face drug charges. He allegedly facilitated the passage of cocaine through Quintana Roo in the mid to late 1990s, when he was governor.

A Twitter feed updated by the Sánchez campaign confirmed the dentention and insisted there was no order for his apprehension. One posting on the feed remarked, "They want to commit another 'michoacanazo,'" a reference to the 10 mayors and various public officials arrested in a sweep of Michoacán last May. Many of those arrested were from the left-wing PRD have since been released and were never convicted.

The Sánchez campaign denied the allegations and planned a rally for March 26 in the afternoon. The PRD called the detention politically motivated and said it was carried out so the left doesn't win Quintana Roo, one of Mexico's youngest and fastest growing states.

Sánchez was leading a PRD-PT-Covergence coalition in Quintana Roo and some in the PAN were backing his candidacy, too. At a press conference in Mexico City earlier on May 25, Sánchez and various left-wing party leaders said he was being "politically persecuted."

Sánchez, known in Cancún for his Gospel music career and derided by some critics for allegedly preaching politics from the pulpit, narrowly captured the Benito Juárez mayor's race in what was perhaps the PRD's most notably victory of 2008. He is trailing the PRI in polls for the July 4 gubernatorial election, however.

The mayor had courted controversy for much of 2010. The newspaper La Razón reported in February his brother was giving classes on extortion from behind bars in Mexico City's Reclusorio Norte. In April, the military raid discovered an espionage centre in Cancún with ties to Sánchez. The centre supposedly gathered informtion from phone calls and radio messages on businessmen, political rivals and supposedly journalist Lydia Cacho, longtime Sánchez critic.

24 May 2010

Paulette, Peña Nieto and the presidency

UPDATE: State of Mexico Attorney General Alberto Bazbaz resigned May 25, just the latest fallout from the botched investigation into the death of four-year-old Paulette Gebara Farah.

Gob. Enrique Peña Nieto
State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto speaks to reporters Nov. 12 in Cuautitlán Izcalli, to north of Mexico City, before meeting with Mexico's Catholic bishops' conference.

Could the inept investigation into the death of Paulette Gebara Farah - a four-year-old girl found dead in her own bed nine days after investigators supposedly had searched her room - derail the 2012 presidential aspirations of State of Mexico Gov. Enrique Peña Nieto?

It's too soon to tell, but a recent survey by María de las Herras suggests the fallout has negatively impacted the governor - the leading contender for the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidacy in 2012 and the early favourite for the presidency itself.

The de las Herras survey, published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, found 45 percent of respondents saying their opinion of Peña Nieto worsened because of the Paulette fiasco, which continues generating a bizarre mix of curiosity, outrage and disbelief across the country.

The outrage and disbelief grew even larger after State of Mexico Attorney General Alberto Bazbaz announced the absence of foul play and explained the circumstances of her death.

As my former editor Malcolm Beith explains on his blog:

The authorities have concluded that the 4-year-old girl who went missing for 9 days this Spring and was then found in her bed, dead, died in that very bed, of her own accidental smothering. Apparently, she was actually in the bed the whole time. Apparently, she was there while the police searched her room, the house, detained the mom, searched some more, put up billboards and launched TV ads looking for her, while an aunt slept in the very bed where she was supposedly lying dead.

This story is too fucking ridiculous to be true.

The Mexican public seems to agree - 71 percent of respondents in the de las Herras poll say they don't believe the official explanation. And now, in an even more bizarre twist, Paulette's mother, Lizette Farah told reporters May 24 that she doubts the explanation, too.

"For me, it's difficult to believe the conclusions and I've not had access to the file, in spite of our filing for three injunctions, and the Attorney General's Office of the State of Mexico has never lent it to me," Farah said.

The behaviour of judicial officials has failed to surprise some political observers as the state - a diverse mix of wealthy industrialized areas, ramshackle suburbs of Mexico City founded by squatters and a rural landscape, too - is famed for corruption and sleazy politics.

It gained fame for crime in recent years, too - especially for displacing Ciudad Juárez as the jurisdiction with highest rates of murders committed against women. Most of those crimes have not been solved.

State judicial officials now say the Paulette case is solved, but few people are buying it and the process has been questioned.

"In the Paulette case, people no longer know if they should think it's a sin of negligence, corruption or stupidity. In any of those three cases, the cost for Peña Nieto could be very high," de las Heras wrote.

Or, it might not have much of a cost at all.

Peña Nieto has maintained high levels of popularity in the State of Mexico as a well-oiled publicity machine - and generous coverage from media outlets such as the Televisa broadcasting empire - continually publicizes various public works projects his government claims credit for completing.

Peña Nieto has the inside track winning the PRI nomination for 2012, too, as he effectively controls the PRI and Green Party factions in the Chamber of Deputies and, according to many political observers, controls many of the PRI's state governors - key power brokers in the party, which has a weak central leadership.

The Paulette case may continue generating public outrage for some time - and Peña Nieto's critics will continually revive the matter - but how much it impacts the governor's long-term political fortunes remains to be seen.

23 May 2010

El "Jefe Diego" still missing; investigation suspended

The disappearance of Diego Fernández de Cevallos became all the more mysterious over the weekend as the children of the former presidential candidate asked federal and state officials to "stay on the sidelines."

The Attorney General's Office (PGR) and Public Security Secretariat (SSP) subsequently complied.

The request only fueled speculation about the fate of Fernández de Cevallos - a political and legal bigwig known as el "Jefe Diego" (Diego the Boss) - as theories of him falling victim to kidnapping or a political crime already had been discarded by various groups and individuals ranging from the family to a shadowy rebel group to the president himself.

The kidnapping theory could be surging again as the most plausible explanation - one of "Jefe Diego's" 12 brothers, Manuel Fernández de Cevallos Ramos, told the newspaper Reforma the family was expecting, "A good negotiation."

Family requests that the authorities stay on the sidelines are not infrequent in Mexican kidnapping cases. But, in the case of Fernández de Cevallos, it raises questions: He is the political patron of Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez and Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont - two of the most senior members of President Felipe Calderón's so-called security cabinet. Chávez previously worked as a lawyer in Fernández de Cevallos' firm and only became attorney general last year, replacing Eduardo Medina Mora. Both he and Gómez-Mont are among the most prominent members of the so-called "Diego Faction" in the National Action Party. ("Jefe Diego," while reputedly pious and, without doubt, controversial - recall the "Highway of Love" built with public and private money to facilitate travelling to his girlfriend's hometown in the Los Altos region of Jalisco - is not part of the ultra-conservative "El Yunque" as some with unfavorable opinions of the PAN have stated.)

About the only acknowledged fact in the disappearance is that Fernández de Cevallos went missing late on the evening of May 14 from his ranch in the state of Querétaro. A photo of a bearded man wearing a blindfold - with a similar resemblance to Fernández de Cevallos - has circulated, but its authenticity cannot be verified.

Gómez-Mont, for one, expressed doubts.

"I think it's out of focus and regretable that this kind of photograph is published due to the delicate nature of the subject," he told reporters May 21.

He asked the media "to be prudent."

Coverage of the disappearance has diminished somewhat, although other sensational matters - most notably the Paulette fiasco in the State of Mexico - stole the headlines.

Media giant Televisa has announced it would stop covering the matter out of respect for the family and to "put the life of Fernández de Cevallos ahead of the practice of journalism. It wasn't an easy decision."

The stance drew a sharp response from one of Televisa's harshest critics, radio and television journalist Carmen Aristegui.

"Is self-censorship responsible journalism?" she wrote in her a May 21 Reforma column.

"If it weren't so serious - because the most powerful media outlet in the country threatens the right to information of millions of Mexicans - it would be ridiculous and hilarious, the self-censorship declaration of the national chain."

21 May 2010

More strange political bedfellows

In 2006, Flavio Sosa led an uprising of groups agitating under the banner of the Oaxaca People's Assembly (APPO) that called for the head of Gov. Ulises Ruiz - who made a botched attempt at removing striking teachers from the central square of the state capital, Oaxaca city. The ensuing conflict shut down the capital for months and ruined the state's tourism economy.

In 2009, Sosa tops a list of Labor Party (PT) candidates seeking the seats in the state legislature distributed through a proportional representation system known as the "plurinominal."

The PT is participating in a coalition of opposition parties - along with the PAN, PRD and Convergence - that united to oust Ruiz and the PRI in the July 5 gubernatorial elections.

Sosa's placement at the top of the PT plurinominal list almost guarantees his arrival in the state legislature - a long way from the street protests of three years ago and the prison cell he subsequently occupied while waiting for charges against him to be dismissed. (He was never convicted of any crimes from the 2006 uprising.)

It would also put him in a caucus with the PAN, a party which many leftists believe rigged the 2006 federal election and which has helped keep Ruiz in power - a condition demanded by the PRI for its allowing President Felipe Calderón to take the oath of office in a divided Congress.

But such is the dislike for Ruiz among all the opposition forces in Oaxaca that they backed Convergence candidate Gabino Cue for the 2009 election. Even the small, left-wing PT, which withdrew from coalitions in other states such as Hidalgo at the behest of 2006 election runner-up López Obrador, has backed the coalition - although López Obrador, who has been running roughshod over much of the PT in recent years, has not endorsed the Cue's candidacy.

Polls show a tight race in Oaxaca - closer than most of the other states contesting gubernatorial elections on July 5. A Reforma poll put the race between Cue and PRI candidate Eviel Pérez in a statistical tie.

Sosa wasn't the only plurinominal candidate in Oaxaca to raise attention, however. The PAN list of plurinominal candidates included Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, who made news in 2007 for unsuccessfully trying to run for the mayor's office in the municipality of Santa María Quiegolani.

The mostly indigenous Zapotec municipality is governed using something known as "usos y costumbres" (local customs) - something common in much of rural Oaxaca - which were invoked to prevent her participation in the last election due to her gender and, according to Cruz, her professional status.

20 May 2010

"Jefe Diego" still missing

Former National Action Party presidential candidate Diego Fernández de Cevallos went missing May 14 and remains missing. What became of the political and legal heavyweight known as "Diego the Boss" remains a mystery and the subject of speculation.

As of May 20, federal officials had released no plausible theories for his disappearance from his ranch in the state of Querétaro. Possible motives such as kidnapping, revenge and narcotics-trafficking cartels possibly sending a message by abducting a political figure - one with a close relationships to the interior minister and attorney general - have been discarded.

Others, ranging from the president to a rebel group to the family, have all publicly stated their bewilderment at what has shaped up as one of Mexico's most curious political mysteries and comes amid a nationwide crackdown on narcotics-trafficking cartels and organized crime that has claimed some 23,000 lives since President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006.

Calderón told CNN in a May 19 interview, "Until now, it's a mystery," and discarded suggestions the disappearance was the work of narcotics-trafficking cartels trying to send a message. "Criminals send me clear messages through other channels," he said.

The EPR rebel group also expressed mystery at the disappearance. The group - which claimed responsibility for pipeline explosions three years ago - said it was not involved in any possible crime.

The Fernández de Cevallos family, meanwhile, pleaded with any potential kidnappers to please contact them.

Politicians from all the political parties have expressed preoccupation with the disappearance of "Jefe Diego" - even though Fernández de Cevallos has cut a controversial path throughout his legal and political careers. The latter has been marked by his work as a PAN operative, presidential candidate, party leader in the Chamber of Deputies and, most recently, senator.

The 2008 book, "The Untouchables," listed Fernández de Cevallos as one of its 10 Mexicans operating with impunity (others profiled in the book included boxer Julio César Chávez, Cardinal Juan Sandoval of Guadalajara and discount-drug baron Victor González Torres).

Some in the PAN despise Fernández de Cevallos and Calderón has not been considered close with "Jefe Diego," although relations between the two men have reputedly have thawed in recent years as members of the PAN's "Diego faction" such as Interior Minister Fernando Gómez-Mont and Attorney General Arturo Chávez Chávez have assumed senior cabinet positions.

"The Diego faction has been wary of Calderón, but Diego has been placing some of his people so they're not completely out of it," said Federico Estévez, political science professor at ITAM.

"His best placement of course was Gómez-Mont ... although I'm not saying (Fernández de Cevallos) engineered it."

"Jefe Diego" - like much of the PAN establishment - didn't back Calderón in his run for the 2006 presidential nomination.

Fernández de Cevallos is best known for being the 1994 PAN presidential candidate and winning the first-ever presidential debate with PRD candidate Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and PRI candidate Ernesto Zedillo - the eventual election victor. Despite winning the debate, Fernández de Cevallos mysteriously maintained a low profile throughout the rest of the campaign.

He previously served in the Chamber of Deputies, where, along with Gómez-Mont, he led one of the most successful PAN negotiating teams in party history and was able to broker deals in the early 1990s on such things as financial reform and the formation of the Federal Electoral Institute.

"They got big policy designed ... they changed the electoral system and got the reforms they wanted," Estévez said. "A lot of the economic policy was also very panísta."

But Fernández de Cevallos became especially controversial for - among other things - his 2000 - 2006 term in the Senate. While sitting as a Senator, he represented some of Mexico's most elite companies as they took legal action against the federal government and won large judgments. In a 2002 case, he won a case against Hacienda (the Finance Secretariat), forcing the return of 1.8 billion pesos to his client, Jugos del Valle.

His moonlighting prompted the introduction of the so-called "ley antidiego," which remains frozen in the Chamber of Deputies.

Fernández de Cevallos won other judgments after leaving the Senate, although he recently lost an especially large case in the Supreme Court. The court rejected arguments that his client, who had purchased a Banamex investment in 1987 at an interested rate of 91 percent, was owed 250 billion pesos (roughly $20 billion).

His political maneuverings won him the most controversy - especially with the Mexican left, a group for which Fernández de Cevallos and his protege, Gómez-Mont, have had an abiding dislike, according to many political observers.

That dislike was on display earlier this year, when Gómez-Mont resigned from from PAN over the party's decision to form alliances with the left-leaning PRD for the 2010 gubernatorial elections in states such as Oaxaca, Hidalgo and Puebla. For his part, Fernández de Cevallos, a long-time opponent of electoral alliances, blasted the deals, too.

His past wars with the left have been legendary. Fernández de Cevallos reputedly played a role in making the Mexico City video scandals public early in the last decade. Those scandals caught on film local PRD rainmaker René Bejarano - a former chief-of-staff to ex-Mexico City mayor Andrés Manuel López Obrador - accepting cash from developer Carlos Ahumada.

After the close 2006 election - when Calderón narrowly beat López Obrador by less than a percentage point in the official vote count - the outcome was decided by a panel of judges known as the federal electoral tribunal, or Trife. In the Trife, according to the book, "The Untouchables," "It was considered that a majority of the members of the tribunal owed their position totally or partially to the then-still powerful PAN senator." Fernández de Cevallos led the PAN legal team in the electoral dispute.

Fernández de Cevallos had, over the past 18 months, become more relevant in national politics as Calderón opened up his tight inner circle to include figures such as Gómez-Mont - a result of the death of then-interior minister Juan Camilo Mouriño and electoral defeats.

It makes the disappearance of Fernández de Cevallos all the more mysterious.

05 May 2010

Cinco de Mayo not what it seems

Cerveceria Cuauhtemoc Moctezuma
Here's a cinco de mayo story from 2005 that keeps being recycled by various Canadian newspapers.

By David Agren, Calgary Herald

Oswaldo Torres planned on celebrating cinco de mayo (May 5) the same way he does every year: by going to work.

"It's a holiday, but not a very big one," the Guadalajara, Mexico taco-stand manager said.

"The big day for celebrating is September 16 [Independence Day]."

While the holiday receives only tepid enthusiasm in many parts of Mexico, cinco de mayo has surged in popularity north of the border, where both Latinos and non-Latinos indulge all things Mexican, including food, drink, music and dance. It's also become a day of pride for Chicanos, surpassing holidays like Independence Day and Day of the Dead in stature.

"Cinco de mayo is a chance for Mexican-Americans to show non-Mexicans that they have strength, unity, and a strong history," said Linda Lowery, an author in San Miguel de Allende, who wrote a children's book on the holiday.

May 5 offers non-Latinos an opportunity to party too--although many simply use it as an excuse to bash piñatas, chug Corona beer and sip margaritas.

"For non-Mexicans, it's like St. Patrick's Day, a celebration and identification with Mexican culture, food, and music," Lowery explained.

"Many [people] have only a cursory understanding of the significance of cinco de mayo and the Battle of Puebla," she added. "They often mistakenly assume it's Mexican Independence Day."

Cinco de mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, where an out-manned and out-gunned Mexican battalion led by Ignacio Zaragoza defeated a powerful French invasion force in 1862. France eventually won the war, however, and made Maximilian emperor of Mexico. (He was later overthrown and executed).

Although May 5 marks a normal day on the calendar for most Mexicans--banks and government offices remain open, public schools usually close--poblanos (Puebla state residents) take a special pride in the event.

"It's really a regional holiday here," Lowery said.

With the growing popularity of cinco de mayo, some Latino groups have taken exception to how businesses are using the holiday. Beer importers and bars have been accused of hijacking cinco de mayo, using the holiday as a way to market Mexican suds and promote irresponsible drinking.