Cinco de Mayo: The Real Story – Part 1

Part 1: While viewed as a Mexican holiday, the date has more meaning in the US.

By David E. Hayes-Bautista, Exclusive to EGP

Cinco de Mayo is coming up. It must be party time! But before stocking up on chips, salsa, margarita mix, and miniature party sombreros, we might want to ask one serious question: why are we celebrating an obscure battle that took place far away in Mexico nearly 150 years ago? And further, why is that Latinos in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo so intensely, when it is not celebrated in Mexico?

The answer is simple: Celebration of the Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday—it is an American Civil War holiday, created spontaneously by Mexicans and Latinos living in California who supported the fragile cause of defending freedom and democracy during the first years of that bloody war between the states.

California was part of the Republic of Mexico when slavery was abolished in that country, decades before it was dismantled in the United States. The Latinos who helped write the California constitution in 1849 were insistent that slavery be kept out of the state, and California’s subsequent entry as a “free state” tipped the balance between free and slave territory, and thwarted the original “Southern strategy” to extend slave territory all across the US to the Pacific coast.

The first test of wills between the forces of freedom and forces of slavery came shortly after Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina during the spring of 1861. The infamous Battle of Bull Run, in which the Confederate army made a shambles out of the union forces, was a swift, hard blow to the Union morale.

But the news became worse. The main Army of the Potomac, under General McClellan was pummeled by the Confederates in almost every engagement, and it appeared to be mired, lost, leaking morale, and on the verge of defeat.

With the US ripped apart by the fratricidal war, French Emperor Napoleon III decided the time was ripe to expand French territories in the North American land mass, and on the pretext of collecting a debt owed by previous administrations, sent his troops into Mexico to topple  democratically elected President Benito Juarez, and install his own puppet, Prince Maximilian of Austria, as ruler. Coyly, Napoleon III teased the Confederacy with talk of possible French recognition of the breakaway regime.

Had both the French and the Confederates been successful in their plans, the North American landmass from the Mason-Dixon line to the Guatemalan border would have been characterized by slavery and oligarchy.

But, as the French Army marched across Mexico to conquer Mexico City, they first had to pass through the city of Puebla, defended by a rag-tag, outgunned Mexican Army.

On the morning of May 5, 1862, the brilliantly uniformed army of the French Empire charged the walls of Puebla, expecting no resistance. To their surprise, the Mexican army did not yield, but instead put up a fierce resistance, and to the world’s surprise, threw the French troops off the town’s walls. Morale quickly rose among the Mexican defenders—they could resist the forces of slavery and oligarchy. Stunned, the French troops re-grouped, then charged again. And again, Puebla’s gutty defenders threw back the French invaders. A third French charge failed and the discouraged Imperial troops slunk back to their lines. Finally, realizing that the French could be defeated, the Mexicans left the security of the walls of Puebla the next day and formed a battle line on the open field, eager to take on the French, positive they could beat the forces of the empire in a formal, frontal battle.

However, the French, their morale destroyed, had broken camp during the night and fled back to their stronghold on the coast by Vera Cruz. The news traveled quickly from Mexico City to San Francisco, arriving three weeks later. On May 27, 1862, the Spanish-language newspaper, “La Voz de Mejico” proudly proclaimed the news to Mexicans in California:

“Retirada de los Franceses. Viva Mejico! Viva la independencia! Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos! (The French retreat. Hooray for Mexico! Hooray for independence! Hooray for the valiant Mexican soldiers)

The effect of the victory in faraway Mexico was electrifying on Mexicans in California, who had agonized with the Union over the Confederacy’s seeming invincibility. Finally, in a major battle, the forces of freedom and democracy had prevailed over the forces of slavery and oligarchy.

Far up in the gold country town of Columbia (now Columbia State Park) Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifles shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches. Had a new holiday just been born?

Next week, Part II of “Cinco de Mayo: The Real Story.”

David E. Hayes-Bautista is Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA. His most recent book is La Nueva California: Latinos in the Golden State (University of California Press, 2004)

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April 30, 2009  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.


23 Responses to “Cinco de Mayo: The Real Story – Part 1”

  1. Dan Hogan Abrego on May 1st, 2009 2:33 pm

    I see that Mr. David E Hays-Bautista as with many people believes that the US Civil War was fought over slavery and that it was a simple good v evil conflict. Mr. Hays-Bautista and others have fallen into this simplistic view and have also fallen for the propaganda of what some historians call “The Lincoln Cult”.
    If this simple view is true, then I ask him and the rest of his supporters to ponder these facts of the CW.
    1. If the US was such a great place for escaped slaves and the Union states were against slavery, then why did the Underground RR have to go all the way to Canada?
    2. Why did thousands of blacks voluntarily enlist as soldiers, not servants, in the Confederacy?
    3. Why did Lincoln fire General Charles Fremont when he wanted to enlist blacks in the Union army in 1861?
    4. Why did Lincoln allow the state of West Virginia to seceed from Virginia if he was aganst secession?
    5. Why did the Emancipation Proclamation only pertain to slaves in states under rebellion, and not the slave states still in the Union?
    The answer to these questions is that the CW was not about slavery and the Confederate soldier was not fighting to keep slaves.
    There were political and economic issues that were far more of the cause than slavery.
    I believe latinos would have been more sympathetic to the Confederacy which was fighting a tyrannical government. Lincoln suspended all constitutional rights, arrested entire state legislatures, threatended to arrrest supreme court jucsices, nationalized the RR and telegraph services, deported persons against his policies, censored and arrested the press, and did not free a single slave.
    Would Latinos support such a government?

  2. Fred W. Hill on February 6th, 2010 4:03 pm

    Apparently Mr. Abrega knows just a little bit about history, mainly the part propogated by the disgruntled sore losers of the Confederacy whose only cause was slavery and had very little to do with “states rights”. Regarding his queries,
    1. Federal law pushed by the southern slave powers mandated that runaway slaves anywhere in the U.S., including the “free” states, be returned to their “owners”, which was why the Underground Railroad ran to Canada, which of course was not subject to U.S. laws and, further, was part of the British Empire which had outlawed slavery several decades previously.
    2. Blacks were barred from enlisting in the Conferate army until the last few months of the war, and then permitted only as a last ditch effort of desperation, granting freedom to any slaves to would fight for their masters.
    3. Fremont was fired because LIncoln, whose primary purpose at that point was to preserve the Union, which still included the border slave states of Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland and Delaware, was afraid those states might bolt and join the Confederacy if Fremont’s action was allowed to stand. If that had happened, the Confederacy might well have won the war. Also, Fremont had exceeded his authority.
    4. West Virginia did not seceed to become a separate nation or part of one, unlike Virginia itself. That’s a huge difference.
    5. Lincoln felt he had no Constitutional right to end slavery in those parts of the nation still loyal to the U.S.; however, under the war powers granted him by the Constitution, he could confiscate the property of those engaged in rebellion against the federal government. And remember, despite the claims of the rebels, Lincoln was actually President of the entire country, including those states engaged in rebellion against the federal government. Lincoln also pushed for passage of the 13th Amendment, which did end slavery throughout the entire nation and he signed the Amendment which Congress passed in 1865, although it did not become effective until it was ratified later that year, after he was assassinated. Booth, by the way, was outraged when Lincoln spoke of changing the laws to allow blacks to vote. Upon hearing that, Booth swore he’d kill Lincoln.
    If slavery had not existed in the U.S., the American Civil War would never have taken place. True, the Union side did not claim to be fighting to end slavery, and the Confederacy did not explicitly claim to be fighting to preserve slavery, but in Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens’ “Cornerstone Speech” of 1861, he confessed that slavery was the cause of the rupture between the states. Further, if the Confederacy had succeeded in winning its independence, it planned to expand its slave empire to include Mexico, Cuba and several other parts of Latin America.

  3. Mexico Cronicas on February 26th, 2010 3:49 pm

    Mexico Cronicas…

    La zona arqueológica del municipio, en donde los Teotihuacanos realizaron obras de magnificas cabezas de serpiente y el decorado del Templo Quetzalcóatl, los jugadores encontrados en el palacio de[…]…

  4. Cinco De Mayo in Coming! | Willow Brooke on April 25th, 2011 9:56 am

    […] it is!  Cinco De Mayo was created by Mexicans and Latin-Americans in California in response to the American Civil War.  The holiday commemorates the Mexican […]

  5. steven ybarra on May 3rd, 2011 4:27 pm

    Dan Hogan Abrego ,here is the real deal until you read all of Davids book , you marking comments in the wind.
    slavery was outlawed almost one hundred years before it was in America.
    Mexicans had the best civil rights and human rights law before the Americans took over California.
    Mexican Americans formed a brigade in san jose to fight in the civil war and did so.

  6. Mel Hogan on May 3rd, 2011 7:55 pm

    It seems very odd that the author’s thesis in this web article is not mentioned at all in the lengthy paper he co-authored that was published in Southern California Quarterly,

    The author’s theme in this article is that Cinco de Mayo is “an American Civil War holiday, created spontaneously by Mexicans and Latinos living in California who supported the fragile cause of defending freedom and democracy during the first years of that bloody war between the states.”

    But in his paper published by the Southern California Quarterly, the author does not even hint that Cinco de Mayo is vaguely related to the US Civil War. The word ‘slavery’ does not appear at all in more than 40 pages of text and notes. The US Civil War is mentioned only in relation to French military strategy … and never as motivation for early Californian celebrations.

    Beyond the author’s own speculation, there seems to be almost no basis for the argument that Cinco de Mayo is “an American Civil War holiday.”

    I’m curious why the author saved the “REAL STORY” for this web article when he failed to address this main theme in his much lengthier publication in a scholarly journal.

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  8. Lucas Javier on May 5th, 2011 10:27 am

    we should all celebrate 5 de mayo, and civil war holidays no matter who we are, or where we from as a celebration of good vs evil simple as that the way i see it. if it wasnt for the bravery of the Mexicano rag tag fighters from puebla we in mexico might be speaking french right now, and the US might not got to become wat it is now. this great nation!!!!
    and the whole continent might be under slavery ….
    so i say lets forget our differences and grabb some cervezas and cheers
    viva mexico!!!!! la batalla de puebla!!!! y viva the union!!!

  9. Lee on May 5th, 2011 2:28 pm

    The guy that cut my hair just told me that Cinco de Mayo was originated from a marketing campaign from Corona, because the date of independence didn’t “roll of the tongue”, so they just made up another date.
    Now, beat that one! lol.

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  12. Av Ibp on September 5th, 2012 6:29 pm

    Man walked on the moon only because the french were making bread in Paris that day too and nobody but the author understands me !! !!

    Viva le Paris

  13. Tony cu on April 30th, 2013 9:52 am

    First at all sorry for my English ,
    Well as a mexicano I am so praud of my country not mater what ,
    it is true that we dont celebrat 5 DE MAYO in Mexico but we do honor the flag and the people who fight la batalla de Puebla in school all over Mexico we don’t celebrate as a big Holliday is becouse we lost the war and is noting to celebrate when you lost, right ?

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