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Historic South Tucson restaurant reflects on Cinco de Mayo

70-year-old culinary staple discusses sharing culture & history through Mexican holidays
South Tucson Welcome Sign
Posted at 6:22 AM, May 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-05 13:58:12-04

In the span of several decades, Cinco de Mayo has evolved — from a date marking a key Mexican military victory, to an U.S. holiday that's most synonymous with its southern neighbor's culture.

Leading up to and on the holiday, countless restaurants and businesses across the country attract customers to partake in the celebration by offering deals and discounts on food and drinks closely tied to Mexican cuisine.

That transaction in itself, though, does not guarantee patrons will see reminders or references of the holiday's history.

KGUN 9 visited a South Tucson culinary institution that's been open for 70 years to have a conversation about the exchange of Mexican history and culture when people grab a bite to eat.

Historic records show Mexican army forces defeated French troops in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

When asked what it would be like if the French side had won, Mi Nidito Restaurant co-owner Jimmy Lopez said, "Who knows? Maybe... if they would have won maybe we'd be working on French food."

Cinco de Mayo is one holiday Lopez' staff does keep close as one of many links to their heritage. "A lot of the people that work for us -- they have roots in Mexico and they remember those days, so their dress up with their blouses, shirts and stuff like that," Lopez said.

But in talking about celebrations, Lopez said even when his grandparents, Ernesto and Alicia Lopez, first opened and ran Mi Nidito, the space has never exploded with Cinco de Mayo decorations.

That, he said, has been something reserved for holidays like the Christmas season, New Year's Eve or Mexico's Day of Independence.

"I think we can do more of that being here, and maybe educate the public a little bit on what those holidays mean," Lopez said. "So it's now up to me, maybe, to answer some of those questions, and I've even thought about maybe next year for Cinco de Mayo to do something special."

In a unique way, Mi Nidito's customers still learn about the importance of Sonoran cuisine — in some cases, through a tour where Lopez and his family share their personal story.

"I show them the little lobby where the kitchen used to be, where my grandmother used to cook with little pots like this," he said.

Our conversation carried over into the kitchen, to include the woman leading the heart of the operation nowadays.

Chef María de la Cruz says in her years working at Mi Nidito, she has seen how Tucson, and in some ways scaled out to other communities in the U.S. — have adopted Cinco de Mayo as a way to recognize her country's cultural contributions.

"Americans celebrate it too," she said. "Maybe they don't quite know the history or reality behind it, but for those of us who were taught it, and know what happened -- we're proud of it, of what Cinco de Mayo has become."

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José Zozaya is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. Before arriving in southern Arizona, José worked in Omaha, Nebraska where he covered issues ranging from local, state and federal elections, to in-depth investigations on COVID-19 relief fraud, toxic chemical spills impacting rural communities, and community programs positively impacting immigrant families and their children. Share your story ideas and important issues with José by emailing jose.zozaya@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.