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)