Often wrongly called the Mexican Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla in Mexico 150 years ago. But for decades people have been stumped as to why it is celebrated in the US—especially since the French eventually captured Puebla, and Mexico’s Independence Day is actually in September.
Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: 150 Años Después: Celebración ‘Autentica’ de Cinco de Mayo Llega a LA Plaza 
Some argue that the Cinco de Mayo celebrations of today have become over-commercialized, and in recent years, some proud socially conscious Latinos have objected to it being reduced to a drinking holiday.
Nonetheless, the celebration has endured.
This weekend, a new exhibit opening at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in downtown Los Angeles will shed some light on the significance and origins of the Cinco de Mayo celebration in California and Latino history.
Described as the “authentic version” of the Cinco de Mayo tradition, the “one-of-a-kind” event at LA Plaza includes a gallery exhibit of items from the time period, archive photos, newspaper clippings and a complete timeline chronicalling the historic events, and will also include dramatic recreations to tell the history of the Battle of Puebla to Californians.
The victory in Puebla was more than a battle in Mexico, explains Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, Ph.d, Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the School of Medicine, UCLA.
In a way, it was California’s “Alamo,” and its celebration helped change the course of the American Civil War, Hayes-Bautista told EGP.
The exhibit, “Cinco de Mayo: Latinos in California Respond to the Civil War,” inspired by Hayes-Bautista’s newest book, “Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” showcases the experience of Latinos — los Hispanos — in California, shortly after its annexation to the United States.
Since the 1920s, Cinco de Mayo has been portrayed as a “David and Goliath” story, said LA Plaza Chief Curator Cindi Dale.
The new exhibit provides a new perspective on the Cinco de Mayo celebration from this side of the border and could inspire Mexican-Americans and Chicanos to “take it back,” Dale told EGP, during a preview of the exhibit.
The exhibit is not just about the Battle of Puebla, says Hayes-Bautista.
“You know at Puebla they do a lot of military history about which units were where, how many bullet holes were on a wall afterward. We are doing a social history, what was the impact of that news here? Why did it move Latinos so much the way that it did?” he said.
Hayes-Bautista’s book begins with the adoption of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo. It tells the story of how in one night the life of a boy living not far from what is now the Olvera Street area of Los Angeles, changes dramatically: Francisco Ramirez went to bed a Mexican citizen, and wakes up the next day as an American citizen.
Californios like Ramirez, as mestizos, saw their rights threatened as the color line hardened, so they supported the North in the Civil War to abolish slavery, Hayes-Bautista said.
Just two weeks before the Battle of Puebla, the Confederacy’s army was making gains in the war and their progress was not thwarted until a year and a half later, Hayes-Bautista said.
“So in retrospect, as people got further and further from the Battle of Puebla, the more it reminded them there is hope…” he said.
At that time, the army of Freedom and Democracy for Californios was seen as both the Union in the US and the Mexican Army, according to Hayes-Bautista. Cavalry members from bilingual California included English and Spanish-speaking soldiers. California-based political action groups, known as Juntas Patrioticas, had dues-paying members who helped finance the Union Army, encouraged voter registration, and used Cinco de Mayo as a rallying point to bolster troop morale. They purposely made the day a celebration to be observed every year, he said.
The victory in Puebla by the Mexican army was a victory against slavery and elitism, something the Union army was unable to do for almost another two years, he said.
“So it had a huge impact, it raised the morale, it gave them the sense that maybe freedom and democracy could finally win this battle,” he said. “Until that time the news had been horrible, and it continued to be horrible for a year and a half afterward.”
Much of the history played out right here in Los Angeles, he said. For a time, Union army veterans and their families carried on the Cinco de Mayo celebration. But three generations later, Latinos had lost their personal experience with the meaning of Cinco de Mayo, Hayes-Bautista said.
The exclusion of the role of California’s Latinos from the history of the American Civil War in California is what led to the celebration’s current confused state, he said.
The exhibit at LA Plaza is a chance to tell that history to a new generation of Latinos, Angelenos, and Californians, he said.
Like LA Plaza’s current exhibit, LA Starts Here, the Cinco de Mayo exhibit includes a timeline depicting important events. This timeline however shows US and Mexican events side-by-side.
Celebrate “Original” Cinco de Mayo at LA Plaza – May 5th & May 6th
The two day free event will include tours of the exhibit, live musical entertainment, activities for the family and much more. Some of the highlights include:
—Author David Hayes-Bautista, Ph.d will sign copies of his book, Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, at Saturday’s event at LA Plaza de Culturas y Artes.
—Coloring book on the origins of Cinco de Mayo in the US will also be available during the family-friendly event.
—A re-creation of an early Cinco de Mayo celebration that is true to the Civil War era, including Latino cavalry soldiers, and music of the times, but no mariachis.
—Special performance by Mexican rock legend Alex Lora of El Tri, at 8pm on Saturday.
Music and entertainment will take place from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, May 5th; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 6th.
A stage will be set up in front of the Pico House on Olvera Street, Main Street (from Arcadia to Cesar Chavez) will be closed for the celebration. LA Plaza is always free to the public, the exhibits are open from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The event is presented by LA Plaza, the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at David Geffen School of Medicine, and the Unión de Poblanos en El Exterior (UPEX).
LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes is located at 501 North Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more information call (213) 542-6200 or visit http://lapca.org/content/150-year-anniversary-cinco-de-mayo.