This book’s title, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, is very appealing to this reviewer because, like the author, I have often heard the comment, usually made by recent Mexican immigrants or Mexican nationals residing in the United States, that this observance seems to get more attention here than in Mexico. My response is that this holiday allows Mexican Americans to celebrate their Mexicanidad (“Mexicanness”) without linking it to nationality the way the Diez y Seis celebration (September 16, Mexican Independence Day) does. Additionally, Cinco de Mayo underlines the universal longing for self-determination. David E. Hayes-Bautista makes the same assertions and provides substantial historical evidence, mostly from California sources, to sustain them.
Hayes-Bautista begins by documenting how Latinos in California protested their loss of land and rights in the immediate post-Mexican War period in La Crónica (The Chronicle), El Clamor Público (The Public Outcry) and other newspapers. Latino editors opposed political restrictions and protested discriminatory measures such as the Foreign Miners’ Tax. They also promoted political involvement, urging readers to vote against candidates who backed the rights of squatters over those of Latino landowners and encouraged Latinos to join local militias that helped establish law and order in the chaotic years of the Gold Rush. In this context of regrouping to deal with post-U.S.-Mexico War changes, Latinos quickly formed juntas patrióticas (patriotic organizations) for both men and women to denounce the French imperialist designs on Mexico and, after the famous battle of May 5, 1862, gathered donations for a sword of honor for General Ignacio Zaragoza in honor of his brave charge that secured victory in Puebla. Some Latinos also joined the forces that drove the French from Mexico.
Latinos in California viewed the South’s insistence on the right to extend slavery [End Page 101] into new territories as akin to French imperialism and rallied in support of the Union, with Latino volunteers fighting in New Mexico, Arizona, and elsewhere against Confederate forces from Texas. This intermingling of sentiments was evident during the first celebration of the Cinco de Mayo, which took place in Los Angeles. A crowd at a bonfire rally the night before cheered the stances taken by Abraham Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juárez, and the next day the keynote speaker addressed the audience as “fellow citizens,” “fellow countrymen,” and “Mexicanos” interchangeably (98).
I would also add that Cinco de Mayo was a widely celebrated holiday in Mexico under President Porfirio Díaz, who promoted it, along with the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Independence) on the eve of September 16, to forge a nation from the various “Mexicos.” Conveniently, the two observances glorified Díaz, who had been a hero at Puebla and whose birthday fell on September 15. After the revolution of 1910, Díaz dropped from the pantheon of Mexican heroes and Cinco de Mayo fell by the wayside. The multitude of Mexicans who fled the chaos of that civil war, however, may have been comforted by finding Cinco de Mayo celebrated by Mexican Americans. In the final chapter, the author alludes to this and a blending of the cultural ideals of both nations when California Governor Culbert Olson, in a 1942 celebration, led a cheer in Spanish, “Hurrah for Mexico and the United States!” (186).
Hayes-Bautista’s study is carefully researched and his argument is clear: the commemoration of Cinco de Mayo allowed Latinos in the mid-nineteenth century to unite in support of their new communities in the United States. This holiday, then and today, provides an opportunity for self-assertion while allowing all Americans to join in celebrating the contributions of Mexican culture to this country.