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There’s more to Cinco de Mayo than you might think

Cinco de Mayo has deep roots in Mexican American history

Ballet Folklorico de la Tierra del Encanto dancers entertain attendees during the Cinco De Mayo Fiesta on the plaza in Mesilla, N.M., on May 6, 2017. (Paul Ratje/AFP/Getty Images)
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Cinco de Mayo may be best known as an overly commercial holiday, stripped of meaning and reliant on stereotypes about Mexico, at least for the majority of Americans toasting with margaritas. But the holiday actually marks an important historical event, and for Mexican Americans, the celebration of victory at the Battle of Puebla has served as a reminder of their own resilience and survival.

Mexican Americans became the first group to publicly celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a triumph over European imperial aggression. They recognized that the French invasion of Mexico had commonalities with the Civil War then being waged by the Confederacy against the United States. Their celebrations championed freedom winning against the forces of tyranny in the two countries and were — at least until the late 20th century — an occasion for building community and identity among Mexican Americans.

Mexico gained sovereignty from Spain in 1821 after a long war for independence. It occupied territory stretching from its current southern boundaries up to the modern U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Even though Texas fought its own war of independence, it gets included in the discussion as well. After provoking a war with a politically unstable, financially strapped and militarily weakened Mexico, the United States won much of the territory that had been Mexico’s far northern frontier after the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the war and established the current border between the United States and Mexico. It also gave Mexicans who found themselves on the U.S. side of the new border a year to decide whether they would remain in their homeland or move south to a country most had never known. After a year, those who remained would become American citizens and their property rights would be protected.

One way those who stayed coped with the changes was to form organizations, such as the “juntas patrioticas Mejicanas” (Mexican patriotic assemblies), throughout the American Southwest. As the Mexican American scholar David Hayes-Bautista has shown, California boasted at least 129 juntas patrioticas Mejicanas by the 1860s. These groups reinforced the bicultural nature of the Spanish-speaking peoples of the United States while celebrating their newfound Americanness. They valued the democratic ideals of their country, despite enduring Anglo violence, racism, aggression and land dispossession in the United States. Out of this shared experience, the Californios (ethnic Mexican residents of California), Mexican immigrants and other Central and South Americans in this emergent community felt a common bond and began to identify as “Hispano-Americanos.”

In the meantime, in late 1861, under Napoleon III, France invaded Mexico with the pretense of collecting a debt. The English, Spanish and French had all lent money to Mexico, but when President Benito Juárez defeated internal conservative factions, his enemies fled and took the leftover money with them. Juárez announced a two-year delay in repayment, but France came to collect. Napoleon secretly wanted to invade Mexico and install a puppet government. Spain and England, who were also owed money, refused to join Napoleon’s imperial machinations.

In the United States, the juntas patrioticas Mejicanas rallied around the Mexican cause for freedom. They worried that if France took Mexico, it would become the dominant imperial force in the region, overpowering other independent Spanish-speaking countries.

Just as Mexico was in peril of becoming recolonized by a European superpower, so too was the United States in danger of being dismembered from within as the U.S. Civil War broke out.

As denizens of a free state, Californios feared that the Confederate States of America (CSA) would come for them next. The CSA had its eyes set on the West and even Mexico, sparking fear for people living in free-soil Western territories. It was perfectly reasonable to expect that, had the South won the war, slavery would have followed. Mexico had abolished slavery after its 1821 independence, so the Mexican residents of California tended to reject the idea of living in a slave society.

Then, on May 5, 1862, Mexico defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla. The news quickly spread through Spanish-language newspapers to the anxious Hispano-Americanos waiting to hear some good news from Mexico. It was a highlight in what seemed like a doomed struggle to keep that nation free and independent.

The very first public Cinco de Mayo celebrations occurred not in Mexico but throughout California and Texas in the weeks after the Battle of Puebla. These celebrations came at a dispiriting and deeply concerning time, as the CSA gained the upper hand early in the Civil War. The victory against the French was a cause to rejoice. Celebrations would continue throughout the remainder of the French occupation and beyond.

For instance, in 1864 — as the U.S. Civil War raged — Antonio Mancillas, editor of San Francisco’s La Voz de Mejico, “set out to convince his readers that Cinco de Mayo was worth remembering.” That day, the local junta patriotica of the gold-mining town of Sonora in Tuolumne County gathered “to witness the raising of the Mexican flag amid enthusiastic cheers.” Members of the assembly gathered at Greenwood Theater where a portrait of the battle’s hero, the late Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, a son of Texas, hung, and they delivered speeches acknowledging the Mexican victory.

The first generation since the Mexican-American War was coming of age during both conflicts, torn by living in a homeland that was once Mexico and was now part of a nation divided. Inspired by President Juárez, who declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday, the juntas patrioticas Mejicanas helped people channel mixed feelings in a positive way.

The celebrations continued until the close of the 19th century, but by the turn of the 20th century, the last of the juntas patrioticas had disappeared. In time, Mexico’s own independence holiday, the Dieciséis de Septiembre celebration (Sept. 16), became the most prominent ethnic Mexican celebration in the Southwest.

As communities change, their values and traditions change along with them. After several decades of absence, the Cinco de Mayo celebrations were revitalized by the Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This was a period of political activism and cultural renaissance, and activists revived the dormant holiday to reconnect with the Mexican homeland of their forebears.

Cinco de Mayo had originally served as a beacon of hope against the imperialist forces that were intent upon reinstating a European monarchy in the Americas. Chicano activists chose Cinco de Mayo because they viewed their struggle against the systemic racism they faced in the United States in the same light. Just like the poor and ill-equipped makeshift Mexican army that defeated a global superpower against all odds, Chicanos also viewed themselves as “underdogs” in the fight for equality and justice.

When the Chicano movement dissipated in the 1980s, the holiday slowly became corporatized and commercialized. The radical politics of the 1960s and ’70s gave way to a more moderate and accommodationist politics — the “Hispanic” age had arrived. Corporations that Chicanos had previously boycotted saw marketing potential and made inroads into the community through promises of philanthropy and grants. After many years of being boycotted, the Coors Brewing Co. wanted “to improve its image among Chicano activists” and became “the largest supporter of the Cinco de Mayo as a holiday event,” according to a history by Antonio Sanchez of Central Washington University.

By the 1990s, the holiday had been so commercialized and stripped of its original meaning that many people forgot the roots of its initial creation in the mid-19th century and the radical purpose for its revival in the 1960s. What remained was an Anglicized, corporate shell of an event that was once a vehicle through which the Mexican American community could celebrate the triumphs of both its cultural homeland and its newly adopted one.

In recent years, the Cinco de Mayo holiday has been reintroduced in an unlikely place far removed from its Texas and Californian origins. Philadelphia has a vibrant and thriving Mexican community that celebrates El Carnaval de Puebla, which essentially re-creates the holiday as it is observed in Puebla. As is customary in Mexican folkways, people dress up in elaborate and colorful regalia, don bearded masks and perform mock battles in the form of dances. The Mexican American community of Philadelphia provides yet another example of the holiday’s continued evolution in the United States.

If you’re wondering today why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the United States, it is because the holiday is not simply an imported Mexican celebration — it truly is an American holiday. So, ¡Viva Juárez, viva el Gen. Zaragoza, y que viva el Cinco de Mayo!