Tara A. Spears
The first week of May is packed with three Mexican holidays: Labor Day, May 1; Day of the Cross, May 3; and Cinco de Mayo, May 5. Only May 1st is a Mexican national holiday in which schools, banks and some businesses are closed, the other two are social observances that vary by regional custom. Here in the Riviera Nayarit these official days are very understated, no parades or large community celebrations, just family fiestas and individuals enjoying a day off work.
Labor Day, Primero de Mayo: Mexico’s Labor Day being observed on May 1st does actually have some meaning behind it. In 1906, there were labor union uproars and repression in the cities of Cananea, Sonora and in 1907 in Rio Blanco, Veracruz. Labor Day in Mexico means no government office works. There are no banks, postal services, and many restaurants close as well.
Labor Day isn’t all rest and relaxation, either- in some areas it is used as a time to peacefully protest against the issues that might arise with whatever company the particular employees work for. There are several labor unions that unite together to protest specifically on this day to get better health benefits, better treatment, etc. You can see different companies protesting on main streets and in front of city halls often on Labor Day in larger cities. Labor Day 2015 shocked the country when a cartel staged a multi-state violent protest against a federal initiative.
May 3, Holy Cross Day, Día de la Santa Cruz: I have seen this occasion celebrated locally when construction workers decorate and mount crosses on unfinished buildings, as the following pictures illustrate.
As the Mexican economy has recovered following the peso crisis of 1994, the construction industry has flourished in this country and with it the celebration of the feast day of the construction workers.
Religious Origins: For those who are deeply religious, but not construction workers, May 3rd is a spiritual occasion. The faithful pay homage to the Holy Cross through processions of singing believers carrying streamers and flowers through towns, cities and villages of Mexico to decorate the crosses along roadsides and on mountaintops to honor and remember the Holy Cross. These processions of singing pilgrims carry streamers and flowers as they walk through towns, cities and villages of Mexico to decorate the crosses along roadsides and on mountaintops to honor and remember the Holy Cross.
Church services often provide a blessing of the colorfully decorated crosses which are carried in procession by the bricklayers and masons. This special mass asks for the protection of the workers on the job, gives thanks for their safety and success during previous year, and asks for continued good projects, conditions and salaries in the coming year. Many crews fasten a cross that is brightly decorated with crepe paper flowers and streamers onto the uppermost section of the building, continuing the tradition that began with the building of churches by the Spanish in the 1500’s. In some areas, the workers are offered burning copal, the local pungent incense, music and fireworks to frighten any loitering evil spirits from the area. In the 21st Century, puffs of smoke dot the sky marking the construction sites and the crews of joyful and thankful workers, who still release sky rockets, though the workers might no longer remember that originally the fireworks were to clear the area of dangerous spirits. Over the centuries, masons came to make this their own celebration, and they and their families now have a special feast on this day. In some areas May 3rd is called Mason day, rather than Dia de la Santa Cruz. As one local worker explained, “That day, the architects or owners of the construction invite us for lunch and a few beers… and that’s how they honor us on our day.”
As part of the traditional Day of the Holy Cross celebration on May 3, construction workers place a decorated cross on the roof of their current project. Work ends at noon, when the patron, the owner of the project begins the next phase of the festival with tequila toasts, known as copitas. The owner toasts the success of the project and the health and happiness of the crew. He also sponsors a comida (midday meal). This reflects the pre-Columbian custom of placing food and drink on specially constructed altars to dedicate new buildings, and to please the gods. Carne Asada, thinly sliced beef, is prepared onsite on a grill by one of the workers. The grilled meat will be served with beans, guacamole, Salsa Mexicana, (very, very hot chile sauce,) and mounds of tortillas and plenty of cold beer.
Cinco de Mayo: The fifth of May commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War (1861-1867). A relatively minor holiday in Mexico, in the United States Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage, particularly in areas with large Mexican-American populations. Cinco de Mayo traditions include parades, mariachi music performances and street festivals in cities and towns across Mexico and the United States.
As tropical summer gets underway, the first week of May is a well deserved tribute to the talented and industrious Mexican workers.