Cinco de Mayo about much more than having fun
It’s time to set the record straight on Cinco de Mayo, the fastest-growing holiday in the United States.
It was not designed as an excuse for beer companies and sports bars to make money — or for frat boys to get drunk.
No, Cinco de Mayo was supposed to be a day to celebrate freedom.
The origins of Cinco de Mayo may be found in the struggle against European colonialism.
French ruler Napoleon III took advantage of the U.S. Civil War to land troops on the shores of Mexico. He planned to destroy the Mexican Republic and to install a handpicked emperor.
As Napoleon III’s army swept across Mexico, France was openly courting the Confederacy, and Southern officials hoped that French diplomatic recognition would allow the Confederacy to break the Union naval blockade. If France could seize Mexico with minimal losses, the strategic military alliance between the Confederacy and the French Empire could have been cemented.
Latinos and African-Americans were jointly horrified at the prospect that slavery might be reinstated even in Mexico and parts of Latin America that had abolished chattel bondage. The only thing that stood in the way of disaster was the beleaguered garrison of Puebla, a town that the French had to subdue in order to conquer Mexico City.
The French assault on the outnumbered Mexican defenders began on May 5, 1862, but they withstood numerous attacks and drove Napoleon’s troops away from the town. The Mexican Republic had been saved and perhaps, too, President Lincoln’s army.
Latino communities in California and other Western states organized the first major celebrations of El Cinco de Mayo a year after the siege of Puebla had been broken. The themes that Latinos chose to commemorate during this first day of remembrance included: the hope of a final victory of freedom over slavery, democracy over monarchy and union over disunion.
Many of these early celebrations were led by Mexican-American Union Army veterans like those who had fought valiantly at the Battle of Glorieta Pass (known as the “Gettysburg of the West”) in New Mexico Territory against the Confederate Army. These were joyous occasions where portraits of Lincoln were featured along with flags of both Mexico and the United States.
There is nothing wrong with having fun on the 5th of May. But we should remember that this is also a sacred day of remembrance. Cinco de Mayo personifies universal ideals of dignity and democracy that can bring us all together in this increasingly multicultural 21st century.
Paul Ortiz is an associate professor of history at the University of Florida. He is currently finishing a book titled “Our Separate Struggles Are Really One: African American and Latino Histories.” He can be reached at pmproj [at] progressive [dot] org.
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