The History of Cinco de Mayo

When we think this quote from a well known 1997 movie said it best when asked about what it means to be Chicanx:


“We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”


A poll conducted in 2019 found that only 22% of Americans know what Cinco de Mayo is actually about, and even fewer have a point of reference. We are lucky to have people in our community that care about the nuance of the holiday. They have their own experiences. Experiences that were made in celebration of the day that transcend the holiday itself.


Personal experiences and the memories they’re framed in are as import to us as historical fact. Many have reached out to us asking to help both define what Cinco de Mayo is, as well as contextualize it’s cultural, historical and emotional significance for Chicanx people in the world today.


That’s a tall order for us to fill. We are not so full of ourselves to think that we can simply write a post and heal the generational trauma or transcribe a point of view that comes with being Chicanx. What we can do is attempt to educate those who want to read what we have to say.

In Mexico’s long history, the Battle of Puebla is generally considered a fairly minor event. But its legacy lives on a century and a half later, especially in the United States.


After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, other nations were reluctant to recognize the autonomy of the fledgling country. In the ensuing decades, Mexico lost a large portion of its land to the U.S. and entered into a period of economic and political instability.


One of Juarez’s first acts was canceling repayments on foreign loans in an attempt to protect Mexico’s struggling economy. This angered Britain, Spain and France, and prompted them to send a joint expeditionary force to Mexico. However, Britain and Spain withdrew when it became clear that French ruler Napoleon III was interested in overthrowing the new Mexican government.


In 1862, during the U.S. Civil War, the French Army marched towards Mexico City. Emperor Napoleon III was eager to establish a second Mexican empire favorable to the French, an outpost in the New World that would serve as sort of replacement for the French land his uncle decided to sell to Thomas Jefferson in the Louisiana Purchase. So he sent a fleet to attack Veracruz, land of force and head to Mexico City. The French were defeated before they could even get to their destination.


The Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862, when the Mexican Army, led by Commander General Ignacio Zaragoza, repelled attacks by the French army.


It was a small but inspirational victory for Mexico, and four days later, on May 9, 1862, Juárez declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday.

The Mexican Army was outnumbered two to one by seasoned French troops, so Mexico proved itself to be a formidable opponent worthy of international respect.

The Battle of Puebla likely had an unintended impact on the United States, which, at the time, was in the middle of a Civil War.


As Sociologist David Hayes, author of “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” puts it “by defeating the French at the Battle of Puebla, Mexicans prevented the French army from continuing northward toward the U.S. border, where they would have likely aided the Confederacy. So it’s possible that Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla changed the course of American history.” So, as you can imagine the United States could have looked very different today had Mexico not won that small but impactful battle.


The Battle of Puebla was reportedly celebrated in the state of California, which still had strong ties to Mexico; aligned with the Union, the state’s citizens viewed the victory as a defense of freedom.


For almost a century, few in the United States celebrated Cinco de Mayo. But it reemerged as an important holiday in California in the mid-20th century, sparked by the growing Chicanx movement and the struggle for civil rights.


Even though, for Mexicans, the holiday is of minor significance, and the heights of celebration (in Mexico) are arguably reenactments of the Battle of Puebla that still take place in modern Puebla as well as in Mexico City’s Peñon de los Baños neighborhood. Which stands in stark contrast to the millions of people in the Unites States that celebrate the holiday. So, you may be wondering, why the disconnect? Well, the answer to that question is complex, but it starts with commercialization.


The commercialization of Cinco de Mayo occurred during the 1980. Beer companies, in particular, targeted Chicanx, encouraging them to celebrate their heritage with Coronas, Bud Lights and Dos Equis. A commodification of Mexican and Chicanx heritage would soon follow, and today’s holiday participants now purchase piñatas, Mexican flag paraphernalia and costumes that can be deemed offensive by some.


All this serves as an unfortunate highlight of the fact that statistically, of the Americans who take part in the festivities, few know what Cinco de Mayo commemorates.


The complicated legacy of Cinco de Mayo serves as a poignant reminder that the past is made meaningful in different ways by different people.


For many Chicanx, the day holds a special significance as an opportunity to celebrate their shared heritage, and experience a sense of pride that historically is not afforded to Chicanx in the United States.


Though that is not the same for some Chicanx, as many have expressed ambivalence about celebrating it. Which is completely understandable given the creeping commercialization of the holiday. We choose to see the holiday as a means for those not lucky enough to grow up around a strong Chicanx community to learn/celebrate their culture in whatever way is appropriate to them.


In short, the holiday can be what you make of it, and we celebrate you celebrating the holiday how you see fit.


Sources


“The Real Meaning of Cinco de Mayo” by Antonio Sanchez, Ph.D.


“How Cinco de Mayo Helped Prevent a Confederate Victory in the Civil War” by Dave Roos


“A great Civil War : a military and political history, 1861-1865” by Russell Frank Weigley


“Cinco de Mayo History: From Bloodshed to Beer Fest

The history of Cinco de Mayo: from Mexican battle to U.S. bacchanal.” by Stefan Lovgren


“Contesting Cinco de Mayo: Cultural Politics and Commercialization of Ethnic Festivals, 1930-1950” by José M. Alamillo

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