While millions celebrate Cinco de Mayo, to many an obscure Mexican holiday, its significance to us in the U.S. is rarely known.
What does Cinco de Mayo commemorate?
On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army under the leadership of Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza, defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla in Mexico. Mexico already won its independence from Spain 50 years prior to the battle, but this battle was a victory against the imperialism of Napoleon’s France and unified the various Mexican regions under one Mexican identity. It inspired enormous pride that the small Mexican army defeated the French army, considered the best army in the world according to Professor Margarita Sanchez of Wagner College.
To the French, they fought because Mexico defaulted on its foreign debt to France and other European countries. But, for Mexican Latinos living in the U.S. and California, the battle against the French was closely tied to the U.S. Civil War. Many Latinos joined the Union army or navy, or returned to fight the French in Mexico. David Hayes-Bautista, Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the University of California Los Angeles, remarked that Mexican history and American history are tied together through these two wars. “It gives you a sense that our countries have had a shared history going back hundreds of years. It is something that extends to cultural and national ties as well as family ties.” Hayes-Bautista pointed out that Mexicans in the U.S. viewed the Civil War and the French invasion of Mexico as one war fought on two fronts. If the Battle of Puebla had been won by the French forces, it is quite possible the Civil War might have gone differently as the French backed the Confederacy.
Cinco de Mayo celebrations
Unfortunately, this history, and its relevance to U.S. citizens and even Mexican citizens, is lost to most. Jose Alamillo, professor of Chicano studies at California State University Channel Islands, was born in Zacatecas, Mexico before moving to the U.S. at the age of eight, but didn’t learn about this event until he was in a U.S. elementary school. “I thought, ‘Why would I hear about it in a classroom in the U.S., but my parents and uncles never heard about it in their schooling in Mexico?’”
Corporations began marketing the holiday in the 1980s to sell tequila and beer and to entice Hispanic customers to celebrate with their beverages and dine in Mexican restaurants. Cinco de Mayo is regularly and widely celebrated in the U.S., but not to any great extent in Mexico – except in Puebla, scene of the battle.
Alamillo summarizes his thoughts, “It’s not a Mexican holiday, not an American holiday, but an American-Mexican holiday.” Sanchez who wishes it provided more of an opportunity to learn Mexican history says, “But a day of celebration is a day of celebration – and that is good for everyone.”