Cinco de Mayo: A Mexican-American Holiday 2/2

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Cinco de Mayo celebration in St. Paul, Minnesota in the US

Continued from part 1

While short-lived, the Mexican victory at Puebla was important for morale, for Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. In fact the first Cinco de Mayo celebration was the spontaneous joy of Mexican gold miners in Columbia, California. When they heard about the Battle of Puebla and Mexican resistance to French occupation, the miners cried, sang, danced, gave patriotic speeches, and fired celebratory bullets into the air. Cinco de Mayo has been observed on May 5th in California’s Mexican communities continuously since 1863.

The holiday spread to other Mexican, Mexican-American and Latino communities in the United States, fueled by the Chicano rights movement of the 1960s, and eventually reaching saturation levels with the help of beer advertising. This advertising doesn’t look like a history lesson and contributes to American misconceptions about the holiday, which we largely treat as an excuse to drink (a very American thing to do). In US schools, Cinco de Mayo is often observed with general appreciation for Mexican culture, particularly food and dance.

In modern Mexico, all schools are closed on May 5th and it is a state holiday in Puebla. It is not, however, a national holiday. Outside of Puebla, the United States sees the biggest celebrations of the day. Which makes it extra sad that so many Americans don’t know the true history of Cinco de Mayo, or its impact on our own history.

You see, Napoleon wanted to secure Mexico for France, in large part so that he could aid the Confederate army in the US South against the Union. The victory at Puebla provided inspiration and hope to Mexican resistance fighters throughout the country, so that by the time Napoleon erected his puppet government there, the Union seemed less easy to beat.

In another world, a world without the brave Mexicans of Puebla fighting back a formidable French opponent, Mexico might have fallen sooner, and for longer. In that different world, the Confederacy, aided by France, might have won. In that different world, the Pacific Northwest territories may have broken away from the United States, as some white supremacist Americans wanted and the Canadian government considered supporting. There might be three nations at endless war, as complicated and intractable as the Middle East.

On May 5th, 1862 a small Mexican army defeated a much larger French one. This battle, which wasn’t the most strategically significant, has become a symbol. Of Mexican heritage and culture, of Mexican-American communities, of pride. In the United States and other foreign countries, it has become an important cultural holiday and community event for Mexican expatriates and their children. I think it’s a pretty cool story, worth knowing accurately.

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