More Than a Mexican Victory
May 5, 2017
Chances are that you have heard that Cinco de Mayo is not a major holiday in Mexico and that Mexican independence Day is on September 16, not May 5, both of which are true.
You might have also heard that Cinco de Mayo was appropriated by the major beer conglomerates to create a major drinking holiday targeting the Latino market, which is also true.
But before the beer companies put their hands on the history of Mexico’s victory over the French army at the Battle of Puebla, Cinco de Mayo already had a significant presence in the American Southwest.
In an editorial piece for the Los Angeles Times Dr. David E. Hayes-Bautista, author of “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” and a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, details how Mexico’s decisive victory on May 5, 1862 was not only a victory at home, but also beyond Mexico’s boundaries.
A year into the American Civil War, Hayes-Bautista explains, the confederacy appeared to begin its slow creep into victory, which would have perpetuated slavery on American soil.
“The Confederacy had expanded into New Mexico and Arizona, and hoped to get all the way to Los Angeles. For tens of thousands of Latinos in the American West, slave territory was moving uncomfortably close”, Hayes-Bautista says in his piece. “Even as the Union Army in the Eastern United States seemed paralyzed, fearful of moving decisively against the Confederates, numbers of California’s Latinos joined the U.S. Army and organized units of Spanish-speaking cavalry in California and unoccupied portions of New Mexico.”
While the French did involve themselves in the Revolutionary War, this time around they did not take an official side on the battlefield. However, according to Hayes-Bautista, French banks were underwriting Confederate currency, providing support to the south’s ailing economy.
Meanwhile, knowing that Americans were at war with one another and were not going to intervene, Napoleon III of France sent forces into Mexico, where slavery was never legally existent, to try and conquer new strongholds.
On May 5 of 1862, Napoleon’s forces were smashed by under armed and impoverished Mexican troops, lead by the General Ignacio Zaragoza. Despite being outnumbered and hastily trained, Mexican troops decisively defended one of the country’s major cities, halting the French march to the nation’s capital.
News of the Mexican triumph arrived at former Mexican states around the same time as news of the Union’s fall in the Seven Days Battles to the Confederacy. These news lead Mexicans to celebrate a victory over the French and to show support for the Union’s cause.
“Latinos celebrated the good news from Mexico by parading through the streets of towns in California and Nevada, proclaiming their stance both on the American Civil War and on French Intervention in Mexico”, Hayes-Bautista states. “They opposed slavery, white supremacy, and government by privileged elites in both the United States and Mexico. They supported freedom, racial equality, and democracy.”
In many of these demonstrations both the Mexican and American flags flew in unison throughout California and the Southwest, held high by people who clamored for independence and rejected slavery.
Hayes-Bautista closes his piece by stating that “Cinco de Mayo was made in America, by Latinos who proudly bore the U.S. and Mexican flags to show their support for both the Union and its values and for the Mexican victory over the French, who sought to undermine those values.”
So before you pop open that Corona (or whatever your mass market Mexican lager of choice is), remember that Cinco de Mayo has a historical context of celebrating freedom, independence and the defense of values that we have been taught are intrinsically American.