Here’s what Cinco de Mayo has become in the U.S.: a celebration of all things Mexican, from mariachi music to sombreros, marked by schools, politicians and companies selling everything from beans to beer.
And here’s what Cinco de Mayo is not, despite all the signs in bar windows inviting revelers to drink: It’s not Mexico’s Independence Day, and it’s barely marked in Mexico, except in the state of Puebla, where the holiday is rooted in a complicated and short-lived 1862 military victory over the French.
The holiday has spread from the American Southwest, even though most are unaware of its original ties to the U.S. Civil War, abolition and promotion of civil rights for blacks.
Often mistaken for Mexican Independence Day (that’s Sept. 16), Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla between the victorious ragtag army of largely Mexican Indian soldiers against the invading French forces of Napoleon III. Mexican Americans, during the Chicano Movement of the 1970s, adopted the holiday for its David vs. Goliath storyline as motivation for civil rights struggles in Texas and California.
Over the years, the holiday has been adopted by beer companies as a way to penetrate the growing Latino market, even as the historical origins of the holiday remain largely forgotten.
David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine and health services at UCLA and author of the newly released “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” said the holiday’s history in the U.S. goes back to the Gold Rush when thousands of immigrants from Mexico, Central and South America came to California during the Civil War.
According to Spanish-language newspapers at the time, this first group of multinational Latinos on U.S. soil identified with the Union Army’s fight against the Confederacy and often wrote pieces about the evils of slavery. Hayes-Bautista said these Latino immigrants were concerned about the Union’s lack of progress and Napoleon III’s interests in helping the South.
“It wasn’t until the news came about the Battle of Puebla that they got the good news they wanted,” said Hayes-Bautista. “Since Napoleon III was linked to the Confederacy, they saw the victory as the first sign that their side could win.”
They didn’t, of course, at least not for a few years. French forces took over Mexico after the Battle of Puebla, and installed Habsburg Archduke Maximilian as Emperor of Mexico. He was captured by Mexican forces five years later and put to death.
But in the years that followed, Latinos in California and the U.S. Northwest celebrated Cinco de Mayo with parades of people dressed in Civil War uniforms and gave speeches about the significance of the Battle of Puebla in the larger struggle for abolition, said Hayes-Bautista.
The Cinco de Mayo-Civil War link remained until the Mexican Revolution, which sparked another wave of Mexican immigration to the U.S. Those immigrants had no connection to Cinco de Mayo—except that U.S. Latinos celebrated it.
“That’s when it became about David vs. Goliath, Indians beating a European force, and it took on a new meaning,” said Hayes-Bautista. “The Civil War ties disappeared.”