Among the surprises I received as a newcomer to this country 30 years ago was the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. It’s an important, though secondary, patriotic celebration in Mexico that did not seem to justify the extensive ads I saw in newspapers and stores here, with sales of beer and other products that looked to me like bad gringo versions of a false, Taco Bell Mexican-ness.
No countryman of mine in the factory where I worked mentioned the celebration. On the other hand, a slightly friendly gringo co-worker whom I had been helping said something unintelligible that I finally understood as “Happy Cinco de Mayo,” in an accent that made even more difficult my poor comprehension of English. His wishes were nonsense to me: what did he know of the holiday?
I asked everybody I could about the social and commercial phenomenon of celebrating a Mexican patriotic holiday that held little meaning to immigrants and relatively no meaning at all to Americans. Nobody could give me a good answer. A few thought the date had something to do with Mexican independence, but that is celebrated in September.
It turns out that Americans have been celebrating Cinco de Mayo since the battle of May 5, 1862, in Puebla, the city where I was born and lived until I came to the U.S. Yet almost no one remembers why. The history surrounding that battle had been largely forgotten and distorted until the 1990s, during the immigration boom, when it resurfaced in the growing Spanish language media.
Mexican forces had an unexpected victory over the powerful French invading army of Napoleon III in 1862. Napoleon had been encouraged by Mexican conservatives, who wanted a European emperor to govern their disorganized country, so the French could control Mexico and put pressure on the United States in the midst of the Civil War. France wanted to collude with Great Britain to recognize the Confederates as a nation, give them better weapons and defeat the Unionists, thus dividing the country and reducing a new power that the Europeans already feared.
In official Mexican history, there is little mention of this secondary intention of Napoleon III. On the other hand, the triumph of General Ignacio Zaragoza in Puebla is exaggerated and mystified. The story goes that the number of Mexican combatants was half that of the French, though in reality each side numbered about 5,000. The Mexicans, with less sophisticated weaponry, doubtless achieved a glorious and well-earned victory, but several incidents that contributed to the unexpected triumph are excluded from the official account, including an afternoon rainstorm that mired the French artillery in mud. The Napoleonic forces spent a year in Veracruz to reinforce and regroup before defeating the Mexicans in Puebla in 1863.
Without French help from Mexico, the Confederate forces lost the battle of Antietam to Union armies in 1862. This enabled Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves and undermined the British plan of mediation between the North and South, which they expected the North to reject, thus justifying the Anglo-French recognition of the Confederates as a nation, except that now the British population rejected slavery and supported the Union. On July 3, 1863 Union forces defeated the Confederates at Gettysburg, leading to speculation that the outcome might have been different had the South had the superior French armaments.
It has always been unclear to me why the United States celebrates the surprise triumph of poor, problem-ridden Mexico, with its second-rate army, over the forces of the most powerful army in the world in 1862. But Professor David Hayes-Bautista of the University of California, Los Angeles, offers one answer in his book “Cinco de Mayo, An American Tradition.” Hayes-Bautista’s investigation found that the triumphant celebrations of the battle of Cinco de Mayo in fact began in 1862 in California, and quickly spread to the rest of the southwestern United States.
Mexican and Mexican American Unionists in California did not want to see a Confederate victory or a return to slavery, which had been abolished with Mexican Independence in 1821. The new Mexican Constitution of 1857 endorsing the abolition of slavery and equal rights for all races was published in California and informed the Californios of the south, as well as the Latin Americans of the San Francisco Bay Area.
It took two weeks for the news of the Mexican triumph over France to reach the California coast, where it was widely published in several Spanish language newspapers. Mexicans and Latinos rejoiced in the news and soon made Texas-born General Zaragoza their own hero. Since then, the event has been celebrated in California and several other states. It became a symbol in the battle for the civil rights of other generations of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants and, ultimately, led to the celebration we know now.
Victor Reyes is a translator, writer and teacher with decades-old ties to the Light.