El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition

  • David E. Hayes-Bautista
  • University of California Press
  • 304 pp.

Debunking misconceptions about the holiday, the author traces its origin to the U.S. Civil War and French intervention in Mexico.

Reviewed by Susana Olague Trapani

My husband, Josh, knows how to annoy me, and his favorite way at this time of year is to proclaim that May 5 (Cinco de Mayo) is Mexico’s Fourth of July. Even though, as we say in Mexico, she who gets mad loses, I’m irked at this less because of his own feigned ignorance — he knows September 16, 1810, is my birth country’s Independence Day — than because so many other Americans would not know he was wrong. Even many Latinos, yours truly included, aren’t privy to the entire history surrounding May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army — outnumbered and outmatched — defeated the invading French in Puebla, Mexico, during the first battle of the French intervention. Many incorrectly assume that Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday transposed to the United States, or that it marks our freedom from Spanish rule. As a first-generation Mexican-American who spent some of her youth in Mexico, I know that May 5 is not a day held in great reverence there — there were no school marches, bailables and other public festivities to commemorate the day. So why has the United States seemingly appropriated a Mexican battle that was a prelude to a longer struggle with the French?

Using a wealth of sources that includes population-based data and 19th-century Spanish-language newspapers, David E. Hayes-Bautista elegantly and intelligently chronicles the development of the holiday in El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition. The holiday’s origins are surprisingly but uniquely American, tied to the U.S. Civil War and the French intervention in Mexico, when both Mexico and the United States faced serious threats to their sovereignty and the fledgling rule of democracy. At last, here is history that can put to rest the misconceptions and confusion that frame the holiday, allowing a clear picture of how and why, in the words of D.C.’s National Cinco de Mayo Festival (hosted by the Maru Montero Dance Company), “everybody’s Latino!” on May 5.

Beginning on the eve of California’s shift from Mexico to the United States in 1848, Hayes-Bautista delineates the challenges that once-Mexican citizens faced as they eased into their new lives as Americans. In addition to native-born Latinos (Californios), Bautista explores the community created by immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America, called to California by the Gold Rush. Of course the immigrants included  Americans — Atlantic Americans, as they are termed in the book — who brought with them the prejudices and legal system that would affect California’s Latino society as a whole, from the poorest miner to the richest landowner. Such conditions created affinities among Latinos of various origins, whose group identity ultimately helped foster Cinco de Mayo’s importance and popularity.

But Hayes-Bautista makes it clear that the principal driver of the celebration’s origins was the parallel that U.S. Latinos saw between the onset of the Civil War and the invasion of Mexico by the French. In Abraham Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juárez, Latinos saw two embattled heads of state, struggling to lead the nations they were elected to guide and to bolster nascent democracies in the face of serious threats: the secession of the South, and a possible return to imperial rule. With the victory against the French on May 5, 1862, U.S. Latinos saw the potential of Mexico to repel its invaders and reassert its status as a democratic nation. Meanwhile, U.S. Latinos enthusiastically safeguarded the Union’s cause in the States through political, military and social action.

Hayes-Bautista notes the importance of the juntas patrióticas (patriotic assemblies), which although in existence before May 5, 1862, gathered momentum after the Battle of Puebla. The assemblies blossomed into groups that encouraged naturalization for immigrants and voter registration during Lincoln’s reelection campaign, and provided needed social services for members whose circumstances left them ill, injured or even destitute. The societies also, importantly, spearheaded commemorations that would ultimately become Cinco de Mayo as we know it — with a decidedly Civil War/French intervention flavor that rallied support for both Mexico and the Union.

The assemblies’ “summoning power” – “the ability to convene and motivate Latino communities to pursue particular ends” – played a significant role in ensuring the commemoration of Cinco de Mayo. By invoking the memory of the battle, Latinos rallied their communities. Some tied the battle to Mexico’s Independence Day, citing it as an event that reaffirmed the country’s sovereignty; others cast Mexico’s struggle as a cautionary tale, seeing the French intervention as a threat to all republican states in the Americas.

As the generations who lived or knew of the holiday’s origins passed away or began to lose influence in the assemblies, the history of Cinco de Mayo was also lost. In the United States other Latino groups, namely new immigrants, began to organize the festivities, but weren’t aware of the holiday’s origins. While the holiday remained and remains an important celebration for Latinos, it reflected the U.S. experiences of those organizing it. And as the importance of the Latino market and vote grew, corporate and political entities also began to use the holiday’s appeal, expanding its reach but further muddying its origins and message.

El Cinco de Mayo does what I once thought impossible: explain the relevance and the importance of commemorating this day. Hayes-Bautista demonstrates that it’s couched in a distinctive American moment, motivated not only by patriotic fervor for Mexico but by national pride in the U.S and the democratic ideals both nations held dear. Though the book primarily deals with the events from 1848 to 1867, the time period is an important part of American history that should receive wider recognition, particularly at a time when the importance of Latinos in American history is being questioned and banned from classrooms by organizations such as the Tucson Unified School District.

Hayes-Bautista ends by suggesting that modern-day celebrations could be modified to recall the holiday’s important origins. The speeches, bailables, musical performances and foods that are celebratory hallmarks (and are much richer than the Coronas and tequila shots to which the holiday is often reduced) would not fade away. Hayes-Bautista envisions adding Civil War and French intervention reenactments; mission-era Californio songs, dances and costumes; images of Lincoln and Juárez; and side-by-side displays of the Mexican and American flags. Such supplements to the festivities would not only bestow a greater understanding of the holiday, but could serve as a reminder that, in these divisive times, yes: Latinos are American. Ethnically we may identify with our home countries (as I strongly do), but we share the values that make democracy and independence possible. The Maru Montero Dance Company is right: On Cinco de Mayo, everybody is Latino, because we’re all Americans — celebrating an American holiday with origins worth knowing and understanding.

Susana Olague Trapani is an associate editor of The Independent.

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