The Conway Public Library will celebrate Cinco de Mayo at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 3, with music from Men of Fire, children’s activities and a display of Mexican Masks.

The carved and painted carnival and dance masks from Mexico that combine Catholic, Spanish, and Axtec religious symbol masks were donated to the University of Central Arkansas by UCA Alumnus Dr. Earl Riccick, who amassed the collection during his travels to Mexico. Andrew Banks, a Museum Anthropology student, has photographed and cataloged the collection and will install the exhibition.

The wearing of masks in significant in Native American cultures, removing the wearer’s own personality and replacing it with the persona of a "being from another world." The masks (all from about the last 50 years), show the mixture of cultures in Mexico. The Aztec Indians (now an extinct tribe) and later Indians native to Mexico combined their own idols with what they liked of Christianity, and the masks also have influences from Spanish culture. In Spain, the Devil was portrayed with horns, and when Catholicism came to Mexico, Spanish friars added horns to the Indians’ pagan idols. The Indians, however, added horns to masks of men with blue eyes and beards, or their depictions of the Spanish invaders. Some of the masks are quite bizarre and many show strange faces that are human looking but with animals or snakes mixed in to symbolized nature and culture, and good and evil.

The Mexican Cinco de Mayo holiday is celebrated more in the United States than in Mexico, and it also the result of a combining of cultures. It does not commemorate Mexican Independence Day, which is Sept. 16, but has an interesting story that explains why it is observed in the United States.

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.

In 1861, the Mexican President Benito Juarez inherited a country in financial ruin, and he was forced to default on his debts to European governments. In response, France, rule by Napoleon III decided to use the opportunity to make Mexico into a French territory. The French arrived with 6,000 soldiers to attack, but a rag-tag force of 2,000 vastly outnumbered and poorly supplied Mexicans fortified the town and prepared for the French assault. On May 5, 1862, when the French finally retreated, they had lost nearly 500 soldiers.

Because this happened during the Civil War in the U.S., Union soldiers were encouraged by the symbolic message of success in battle, and that is why the holiday is celebrated more in the U.S. than in Mexico.