May 5, 2019

The Origins of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo has been observed in Los Angeles every year since 1862, without a break. But the history of its origins as a civil rights commemoration has been lost over the past 160 years, and it has become reduced, in many cases, to "Drinko de Mayo."
By David E. Hayes-Bautista - The NiLP Report 

Why is the Cinco de Mayo so widely celebrated in the United States, when it is scarcely noticed in Mexico? The answer to that question is to be found in the lived experience of tens of thousands of Spanish speakers residing in what is now the American West during the American Civil War. What? Latinos in the American Civil War? 

When Hidalgo proclaimed Mexico's independence from Spain in 1810, he also announced racial equality in citizenship and the abolition of slavery in the new republic. When the US seized control of the northern half of Mexico in 1848, it also acquired a large, Spanish-speaking, racially mixed (mestizo) population that was largely uncomfortable with the new US constitutional values that permitted slavery and denied citizenship to non-white persons. 

Latino delegates successfully pushed the 1849 California Constitutional Convention to honor Mexico's earlier abolition of slavery, to allow non-white persons to become voting citizens, and to do so in both Spanish and English. California's entry to the US as a free state, without an accompanying slave state as mandated by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, nearly led to Slave State secession and civil war immediately. The compromise of 1850 staved off this war for a decade, and during that time tens of thousands of Spanish-speakers from every corner of Latin America poured into California and Nevada seeking gold and silver. When the Civil War did erupt in 1861, Latinos in the American West overwhelmingly supported Abraham Lincoln and the United States against the Slave State Confederacy. Latinos joined the United States Army, and rode in units of Spanish Speaking US Cavalry: the first full admiral of the US navy was a bilingual, bicultural Latino, David Farragut. Yet, from the very first Battle of Bull Run, the Slave State armies rode a streak of luck, winning highly visible battles in the Virginia Theater of War, while Lincoln's army appeared unable to win the big battles. 

Then, things got worse. Taking advantage of Lincoln's preoccupation with the Civil War, Napoleon
III, the Emperor of the French, sent his army into Mexico for the purpose of destroying a republic with its constitutional values and installing Maximilian of Austria as a new emperor, who would then be free to make an alliance with the rebelling Slave States. 

Latinos in the American West followed the advance of the French army through Mexico via the lively Spanish language press in San Francisco and Los Angeles. When the French army was only about three days' march away from Mexico City, the future for dark-skinned mestizos who might fall under the power of the Confederacy appeared to be bleak. 

Like a streak of lightning in the dark night sky, the news arrived, and it was electrifying: The French did not make it to Mexico City to create a Slave State friend south of the border---they were stopped dead at the Battle of Puebla fought on Cinco de Mayo of 1862, and thrown back to the coast at Veracruz. Although the news arrived three weeks after the actual battle, Latinos in California, Nevada and Oregon immediately erupted into joyous, spontaneous celebrations, They then began to organize themselves into the first regional network of Latino community organizations, the Juntas PatriĆ³ticas Mejicanas. It was established in 129 locations in in the American West, to channel their economic support to Juarez for his purchase of arms and ammunition to fight the French, and their political support Lincoln. Each Junta met every month, three or four speakers would harangue the crowds at each meeting, and the focal point of most of the speeches was the victory of Cinco de Mayo. 

Every year, the Juntas in many towns organized public events on the Cinco de Mayo as a public statement of where Latinos stood on the issues of the American Civil War: they opposed slavery and supported freedom; they opposed white supremacy and supported racial equality. Led by both the Mexican and the US flags, parades would march through the streets of towns and mining camps of the American West, speakers would energize the crowds, bands played music, the militia saluted with rifles and cannon, and then dances would last until the early hours of the morning. 

Cinco de Mayo has been observed in Los Angeles every year since 1862, without a break. But the history of its origins as a civil rights commemoration has been lost over the past 160 years, and it has become reduced, in many cases, to "Drinko de Mayo." 

It is time to take Cinco de Mayo back from drunken revelers wearing sarapes and straw sombreros, and return it to its origins as a Latino public statement of commitment to freedom, equality and democracy. I would encourage us all to commit to creating the 21 century version, "Cinco de Mayo for social justice." 

¡Que viva el Cinco de Mayo! 

David E. Hayes-Bautista, PhD is Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He is the author of the book upon which this commentary is based, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition (University of California Press, 2012). He can be reached at 

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