- El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition by David E. Hayes-Bautista
The annual Cinco de Mayo (fifth of May) celebration of the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla is perhaps the United States’ most misunderstood holiday. Mistaken beliefs still abound that the date [End Page 596] commemorates Mexican independence from Spain or was an invention of multinational corporations to promote the sale of alcohol. David E. Hayes-Bautista does a skillful job of setting the record straight on what ultimately emerges as an important American holiday with unexpected roots deep in the Civil War.
Hayes-Bautista is a medical sociologist and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. As a young Chicano, he struggled to understand the origins of Cinco de Mayo. He was further perplexed by the seeming indifference of the majority of people in Mexico toward a date that held great significance to the Latino population in California. While extracting demographic data from the state’s nineteenth-century Spanish-language newspapers for an unrelated project, he began uncovering clues to the local roots of the holiday. Years after his initial discoveries, he returned to these sources to write this fascinating story that entwines an emergent Mexican-American identity with the social and political turmoil of the United States during the 1860s.
In this thoughtful and original study, Hayes-Bautista positions both the Battle of Puebla and the commemoration of Cinco de Mayo firmly within the context of the American Civil War. While the United States was distracted with rebellion at home, France launched an invasion of Mexico in 1861. Although Napoleon III blamed Mexico’s suspension of debt payments for his aggression, it soon became clear that he had imperialistic goals in mind. French troops marched inland from the Gulf of Mexico intent on subduing the city of Puebla on their route to the capital. Instead, Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza led a valiant defense of the city that repulsed the invaders on May 5, 1862. Although the victory only temporarily halted the French, it had great symbolism for Hispanics living in California.
Although Latinos in the American Southwest fought for both sides during the Civil War, a growing number supported the Union cause. This was particularly true in California, where a majority of Mexican Americans and Hispanic immigrants feared that a southern victory would add their state to the putative nation and bring slavery and further racial discrimination to their homeland. The fear of a Confederate California increased for Latinos when Jefferson Davis reached out to imperial France for an alliance. Mexico’s sympathizers north of the border sought ways to sustain the Union and lend support to the democratically reform-minded government of Benito Juárez.
Key to harnessing the social and economic power of Hispanics in California were local political associations called juntas patrióticas Mejicanas (Mexican patriotic assemblies). At the outbreak of the Civil War, [End Page 597] the state’s diverse Latino population included native Californios, Mexicans, Cubans, Argentines, and other Spanish-speaking peoples. Hayes-Bautista argues that the numerous disparate juntas, which had existed in California before the Civil War, found common cause and identity through the support of a democratic Mexico and an emancipated United States. When Latinos living in California received word of the Mexican victory at Puebla, for example, Spanish-language newspapers throughout the state extolled the triumph. The juntas subsequently raised capital for the defense of the beleaguered Mexican Republic and enshrined the annual observance of May 5 in the state’s public memory. Thus, by commemorating the Mexican resistance to French intervention on Cinco de Mayo, Latinos in California found a cause that celebrated both ethnic solidarity and their loyalty to the United States.
Hayes-Bautista has done a thorough job with his study, and his work will help to alter the perception of Cinco de Mayo as being a foreign...