The unexpected victory of the Mexican army over the invading French at the gates of Puebla on May 5, 1862, gave new hope to the defenders of freedom and democracy in California who had been watching in dismay as the first year of the America Civil War turned into a near-disaster for the Union Army under General McClellan.
The French returned to Puebla a year later to redeem their honor. For weeks, the Mexican defenders held out. But one week before the first anniversary of the original Battle of Puebla on May 5, Cinco de Mayo, out of ammunition and supplies, they were defeated.
On May 17, 1863, Californians received the news: Puebla had fallen.
The defeat was a blow that could have forced Cinco de Mayo to fade in obscurity as just one of the many battles waged to preserve freedom and democracy.
But Cinco de Mayo did not fade into the night. Up and down the state, officers of the local Juntas Patrioticas held meetings to inform Mexicans and other Latinos about the “disaster at Puebla.” By the thousands, they poured out of their workplaces, farms and ranches and homes, to attend meetings and rallies. Emotions were high…freedom and democracy was at stake.
Rather than being discouraged by the fall of Puebla, Junta members were inspired by the heroic 62-day resistance waged against the forces of slavery and oligarchy. In Hornitos, Chinese Camp, San Andreas, Virginia City, New Almaden, Los Angeles and many other cities, they vowed absolute resistance to the evils of despotism and tyranny. Taken aback by the fierce desire to maintain the fight in the face of the fall of Puebla, one writer to “La Voz de Mejico” exulted “We can do no less than exclaim: ‘People so loving their liberty cannot be conquered!!”
Pro-Juárez Latinos expressed their defiance of the French through poems and letters published in the Spanish-language press, including one from an anonymous “mejicano del interior” (Mexican from the interior). It ended with the following warning lines:
Muere el grande de ambicion, [The great man dies of ambition, ]
De deseos el proletario, [The working man of desires;]
Asi morirà Napoleon, [So will Napoleon die,]
Soñando rentas y erario [Dreaming of income and treasure]
De Méjico . . . la Nacion. [From Mexico . . . the Nation.]
A South American who signed himself “an old Brazilian” urged: “Mexicans, now is the time to show your worth; run eagerly and enthusiastically to defend your freedom.” An open letter signed by various prominent Mexicans in San Francisco directed to “Mexicans living in California,” urged in terms that would be understandable to any veterano of the Chicano movement of the 1960s, “If we feel the blood of the Aztecs pumping in our heart, let us defend our homeland, so as not to be strangers on our own soil.”
Rather than extinguishing their desire for freedom and democracy, the fall of Puebla nourished them. Cinco de Mayo became a symbol of the struggle to preserve liberty in the entire North American landmass, whether fighting against the Confederacy in the East or the French in the south. General Mariano Vallejo of Sonoma had a son on each front. Platon Vallejo, the first Latino to go to a US medical school, served as a surgeon for the US Army, and was present at the second Battle of Bull Run. His other son, Uladislado, served in the Mexican Army under Juarez, rose to the rank of captain, and was present when Maximilian was finally taken prisoner. The Spanish-speaking Native California Cavalry rode out of Fort Drum in San Pedro to Arizona territory, where they placed themselves strategically to disrupt a feared Confederacy-French Empire alliance from taking place.
During the rest of the American Civil War and the French Intervention in Mexico, Mexicans in California used the commemoration of the Cinco de Mayo, the Battle of Puebla, to symbolize their desire for freedom and democracy. A new holiday had been born!
Every year since then, Mexicans, first in California then the American West, and eventually across the entire US, have celebrated Cinco de Mayo. The White House has hosted Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and in 2006, the US post office, issued a Cinco de Mayo stamp. The celebrations are many and varied, but over the intervening century and one-half, most have forgotten why we celebrate. The celebration has devolved into a mere party; a time to eat Mexican food and drink Mexican drinks.
But as May winds down, we should remember what Cinco de Mayo is really about: It is not a Mexican holiday: it is an American Civil War holiday, created by Mexicans in California to commemorate the importance of freedom and democracy.
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)