The Curious Tale of Cinco de Mayo

May 5th was Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that sounds like a Mexican celebration but is largely an American one. Latinos Americans first began celebrating the Mexican victory over French forces in 1862. Since then it has spread out from the southeast United States and today Canadians also hold Cinco de Mayo events – or at least, have heard of it.  The curious spread of Cinco de Mayo outside of Mexico reveals the strange nature of public holidays and our celebration of them.

Cinco de Mayo marks the victory of the Mexican Army over French forces at the Battle of Puebla during the French Intervention in Mexico from 1861-1867. France, the United Kingdom and Spain invaded Mexican while the self-anointed defender of the New World, the United States, was embroiled in their Civil War. The European nations were nominally forcing Mexico to repay its debts after its new President, Benito Juárez, suspended interest payments for the debt-ridden republic. A brutal civil war between Mexican Liberals and Conservatives had ended in a Liberal victory (with help from the United States) and the Mexican republic was established in January of 1861. President Juárez assumed the office in March, but the conservative factions were still eager to establish a monarchy despite their defeat.  With the Americans now fighting their own civil war, the European nations saw an opportunity to open up Latin American markets by force.

At the head of the coalition was Emperor Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, and had assumed his imperial mantle a decade earlier through a coup d’état. Napoleon III sought to not only force Mexico to repay its debts, but also establish a Mexican monarchy and a puppet-state. At its head would be the younger brother of Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph, Maximillian Ferdinand. When Spain and Britain discovered France’s ambition, they withdrew their forces, but France continued their invasion of Mexico.

 Charge of the Mexican Cavalry at the Battle of Puebla via  Wikipedia

Charge of the Mexican Cavalry at the Battle of Puebla via Wikipedia

On 5 May, 1862, a 6,500-strong French army approached the Mexican city of Puebla. Defending it was 4,500 Mexican soldiers who were outnumbered and outgunned by their opponents. The French attacked from the north directly at fortified Mexican positions at Fort Guadalupe and Fort Loreto. The numerically inferior Mexican force successfully held the line and they were victorious over the European invaders. The battle was a surprising victory for the Mexican forces, and President Juárez declared it a national holiday to celebrate the Mexican achievement. Though the French would eventually reorganize and successfully take Puebla – and place Maximillian on the throne of Mexico until 1867 – Mexicans in Puebla still celebrate Battle of Puebla Day, or Cinco de Mayo (which translated to May 5), to this day though outside of the area it is less remembered in Mexico as a whole.

 Puebla Battlefield, via  Wikipedia .

Puebla Battlefield, via Wikipedia.

The commemoration of the battle had as much significance for Mexicans as did for Mexican-Americans in 1862. Many Latinos in California had lived under the Mexican Republic, but the United States annexed the state during the Mexican-American War in 1847. After a gold rush, California entered into the union as a free state (slavery was illegal) in 1850.  The new Mexican-Americans were still invested in the events taking place in the country they had once called home.

As David Hayes-Bautista explains, Latinos in the United States closely followed the French intervention as the American Civil War raged on. They perceived the Civil War as a battle over freedom versus slavery, democracy over oligarchy, reflecting the same issues of the Mexican Civil War between Liberals and Conservatives. Latinos across California celebrated the victory of the Mexican Republic at Puebla as the triumph of democracy and a free Mexico. This tradition continued to present day, and persisted as a holiday among American Latinos more strongly than in Mexico itself. For them, the celebration of Cinco de Mayo was a way to establish and shape their cultural identity in the United States. In doing so, they fashioned their own ethnicity separate from their Mexican forebears.

From its first iteration in the 1860s, Cinco de May has expanded into the American consciousness. By the second half the twentieth century, the emerging Chicano Movement grew around Mexican Americans seeking to defend their rights and establish a unique and vibrant culture.  You can find many articles online that refer to this period as when Cinco de Mayo was popularized (ignoring its origins in the 1860s) as it grew in size and scope during the years after the Second World War. By the 21st century, Cinco de Mayo has become widely accepted by all Americans, but not without some dissatisfaction among Latinos. Some see its appropriation into a day to drink tequila and eat tacos as commercialized – especially considering many incorrectly believe that 5 May is Mexico’s independence day and that Cinco de Mayo is still celebrated across Mexico. This is apparent when searching for information, as many articles are forced to correct that false belief in the first sentence.  Cinco de Mayo is effectively a Latino holiday, and increasingly an American one as well.

 President George W. Bush greeting Cinco de Mayo dancers, via  Wikipedia .

President George W. Bush greeting Cinco de Mayo dancers, via Wikipedia.

Perhaps some of our readers have themselves celebrated Cinco de Mayo here in Canada.  Its appearance up north underlines its separation from its Latino roots. Most Latino-Canadians have arrived only in the last forty years following political upheavals in Central and South America (with a sharp increase in the last 20 years). Latino-Canadians are one of the fastest growing minorities in Canada today; however, these new arrivals could not be the source of Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Instead, its spread here reflects its homogenization into a public cultural holiday, rather than solely a commemorative or ethnic celebration.  Today, it is a celebration of Mexican (or perhaps Latino-American) culture and you can find Taco Bell, Chipotle, and Tequila producers, all looking to make some money.

The muddled origins and purpose of Cinco de Mayo are not exactly unique. Many holidays are transformed into celebrations that seem traditional and established, but are in fact far different from their origins.  We’ve discussed traditions behind Moving Day in Quebec before, but another well-known example might be the 5th of November or Guy Fawkes Night. It was once a celebration of Protestant domination, since the 5th marked the failure of a Catholic assassin to kill King James I in 1605 and the arrival of Protestant King William of Orange during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is now disconnected from its religious origins and few of its celebrants commemorate the Protestant victories of centuries past. Or Christmas, which was once a date important to pagans, but was co-opted by Christians in the Roman Empire. Such appropriations are not unusual, and reflect the nature of public holidays themselves.

Though many holidays start centered on a specific ethnic, religious, or cultural community, as they pass into the realm of public celebrations, they are subject to change. After all, they only reflect the people who celebrate them today – not those who did in years past. Each year offers a new chance to become something slightly different. Public holidays, like other commemorative events and objects, change over time and suit the needs of those who use them - not those who started them.