Mexican American Tradition of Cinco de Mayo

By: John Milstead
Cinco de Mayo will be celebrated from sea to shining sea today. Today I challenge you to read this wonderful piece by John Milstead about why the holiday is more popular here in the United States than it is in Mexico and the incredible victory over French forces in Puebla started it all. Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Commemorating the Battle of Puebla in Mexico and the United States

The editors of El Siglo Diez y Nueve published a full account of the Mexican army’s stunning victory over French forces in Puebla on May 5, 1862. They printed a series of dispatches from the commanding general, Ignacio Zaragoza, to illustrate how the determined Mexican army forced the French to retreat. The editors also provided readers with a short commentary to contextualize the victory. They proclaimed that “Mexico has fought, not only for its own cause, but for that of all the American continent.”

In their estimation, Zaragoza’s forces “have battled for liberty of the human race, for the independence of all the nations of the land.” They warned, however, that “the French government… will persist in its terrible and badly calculated business of suffocating the independence of a free people.” The authors attempted to foster support for defending Mexico from the French invasion by offering some suggestions of how people could contribute to defending their homeland. They closed the article by proclaiming “Glory to Mexico! Glory to the defenders of independence! Glory to General Zaragoza! Glory to the democratic cause and to the Reform.”

Chances are, very few Cinco de Mayo celebrations this year will reference this battle. In my experience, many people in the United States mistakenly attribute the occasion as Mexican Independence Day and use that as an excuse to drink heavily. Latinos, on the other hand, have used the day as means to celebrate their diverse backgrounds as immigrants from Mexico and other regions of Latin America. Interestingly, people in Mexico rarely celebrate the holiday. They tend to prefer independence ceremonies, popular celebrations, and religious festivals rather than commemorating Zaragoza’s victory. Nevertheless, commemorating the Battle of Puebla has a long history on both sides of the border. In the United States, Mexicans naturalized as US citizens after 1848 and more recent immigrants saw the day as a way to combat racism and promote solidarity, and prominent leaders formalized the holiday after several years of popular celebrations. Politicians in Mexico, on the other hand, unsuccessfully attempted to promote the day as the nation’s second independence. They erected monuments in lavish ceremonies to place Zaragoza alongside the pantheon of independence heroes. These diverging histories are a far cry from the way that companies in the United States attempt to capitalize on the holiday’s recent popularity. Beer companies sell an array of Mexican lagers to throngs of people who pack into Mexican restaurants in search of hard-shelled tacos, combination plates, and taco bowls all of which are smothered in melted cheese.

“…cheering and energetic protest of an entire nation against foreign oppression.” President Benito Juárez

After independence from Spain in 1821, popular optimism in Mexico gave way to a series of national crises. The country fractured politically into factions of conservatives and liberals. Generally speaking, conservatives sought to reprise their roles at the top of the social hierarchy during the colonial era (1521-1821), preserve the role of the Catholic Church, and promote a strong central government. Liberals tended to support a federalist political system, advocate limiting the role of the church, and insist on equality under the law. Antonio López de Santa Anna vacillated between these two ideologies as he dominated early post-independence politics. Immigrants from the United States entered into these debates in the early 1830s after settling in Texas. Their leaders opposed a national move toward centralism that effectively ended slavery, but the English-speaking immigrants clung to the federalist system so as to preserve slavery in their state. They revolted in 1836 and secured independence by capturing Santa Anna at San Jacinto. Nevertheless, the new country faced considerable economic and political competition from both Mexico and the United States. The US government annexed the former Mexican state in 1845 as a means to balance the addition of slave and free territories in the west.

The annexation immediately created a diplomatic crisis between Mexico and the United States. Authorities in Mexico correctly insisted that Texans secured independence in a manner that did not meet international standards. Officials argued that Santa Anna’s recognition of the Republic of Texas was illegal because the Texas militia forced him to sign the treaty under duress. US leaders rejected this argument, and they located the border at the Rio Grande instead of the traditional boundary to the north at the Nueces River. President James K. Polk instigated the war when he sent US troops across the Nueces to the Rio Grande. The US invasion began in 1846 and lasted for two years culminating with the loss of approximately half of the national territory. This area comprised parts of the modern US states of California, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Oklahoma in addition to Texas. Countless Spanish-speaking Mexicans became naturalized US citizens, but they often faced racist laws and demeaning slurs from English-speaking people who flooded into the new territories to seek fortunes.

Liberals assumed power less than a decade later in 1855. They passed a constitution in 1857 that ushered in sweeping reforms guaranteeing equality under the law and limiting the role of the church. Conservative leaders led a revolt in 1859 against liberals for two years in the War of the Reform. President Benito Juárez attempted to unify the country after the liberal victory in 1861, but conservatives refused to end their opposition to the reforms. At the same time, England, Spain, and France seized the port city of Veracruz to obtain payments for outstanding debts Juárez’s predecessors incurred. The English and Spanish governments quickly withdrew their forces when Napoleon III’s army began advancing inward along the same route Hernan Cortés took on his way to Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City). The French leader apparently saw Mexico as vital to his imperial enterprise.

General Count Charles Ferdinand de Lorencez led a large contingent of French forces along Cortés’ route in 1862. He approached Puebla on May 5 and unsuccessfully made four attempts to take the city from Mexican forces under the command of General Zaragoza. Historians David Hayes-Bautista and Cynthia Chamberlain describe that by 6:00 in the evening “the French army, which had not been defeated since Waterloo fifty years earlier, was now unwilling to engage the aggressive Mexican army… and it ignominiously withdrew from the field.” The Mexican army’s stunning victory protected a vital route to the capital approximately 80 miles to the northwest. As the opening example suggests, news of the victory quickly reached the capital, and then it spread throughout the Americas and Europe in the weeks afterward. Napoleon III redoubled his efforts and named a new general who successfully took Puebla and Mexico City a year later. He then tapped Maximilian von Habsburg of Austria to become Mexico’s short-lived emperor. Juárez escaped Mexico City and used his black coach as a rolling presidential palace in northern Mexico coordinating the resistance to the new emperor. He victoriously re-entered Mexico City in 1867 and ordered Maximilian’s execution as a warning of what would happen to the other powers in Europe.

After the victory, Juárez attempted to invent a new tradition and incorporate the Battle of Puebla to Mexico’s state ceremonies. Two years after the restoration of the Mexican republic in 1869, one prominent politician wrote a moving dedication to citizens preparing to commemorate the victory in one of the first national ceremonies. He wrote that he “did not have to narrate the event that is fresh in the memory of everyone.” He observed that “we can inscribe the 5th of May as one of the most glorious days of our history” adding that the battle “signifies for Mexicans… the cheering and energetic protest of an entire nation against foreign oppression.”

A few months later Juárez himself attempted to connect the battle to independence. With all the pomp and circumstance of a national ceremony he boarded a train from Mexico City to Puebla on September 16 stopping along the way to greet soldiers who fought against the French army. He arrived later that day and presided over a number of ceremonies, and the celebration continued to the next day when the festivities culminated with Juárez placing “the first stone monument to be dedicated to General Ignacio Zaragoza.” The carefully planned ceremony illustrated the connection between independence and national sovereignty, and as historian William Beezley argues, it was also an attempt to capture “the essence of the republic restored after the expulsion of the French.” The Juárez Independence Day ceremonies combined powerful images of progress, unity, and sovereignty by incorporating the Battle of Puebla into the celebration, but it also illustrates how the holiday fell out of favor in Mexico. Leaders promoted the national commemoration of the battle, but it never replaced the more important Independence Day celebrations on September 15, 16, and 17.

News of the victory quickly reached Latinos in California in 1862. Hayes-Bautista and Chamberlain describe that “in town after town” throughout California “Latinos eagerly absorbed the news” with spontaneous celebrations. They explain that longtime Mexican residents who predated the transfer of California to the US as well as recent immigrants from Mexico, Central, and South America experienced widespread racism and exclusion as thousands of English-speaking migrants flooded the region. This combined with a caustic political environment in 1862 due to the Civil War. Latinos therefore used news of the victory to form a “larger common bond of Latino-ness that superseded their smaller group identities.” They immediately formed patriotic committees to plan future celebrations and send aid to Juárez. These popular movements also gave way to better planning, and prominent leaders used the occasion as time passed to bridge generational divisions and promote solidarity. While the Mexican government promoted Independence Day to Latino communities in the United States, community leaders, social clubs, and entrepreneurs organized Cinco de Mayo festivals without the oversight of Mexican officials. The holiday became more important as new waves of immigrants arrived beginning in 1910. People “passed from generation to generation… an ever-changing set of signs and symbols, with each succeeding generation objectifying the social movement as they saw fit.”

The Cinco de Mayo holiday has changed dramatically from the first celebrations in Mexico and California. In the past week, a number of advertising campaigns have targeted the broader population offering to sell their products as the best way to celebrate the day. Ranging from beer companies to festive tablecloths, the products these companies sell to revelers bring in millions of dollars in profits to their corporations. Major cable television networks dedicate several weeks of airtime to host a wide range of cooking shows that instruct viewers how to prepare the proper meal. In the past week, I have witnessed hosts debate whether to use hard or soft tortillas, demonstrate how to prepare authentic margaritas, and provide viewers with information on the heat of specific chilies. Few people will consider stunning victory at the Battle of Puebla or the millions of Latinos who transformed the Mexican army’s victory into a US holiday.

John Milstead is a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at Michigan State University. His research analyzes race, citizenship, and state formation in nineteenth century Mexico. In 2012, John published his M.A. thesis, “Party of the Century: Juárez, Díaz, and the End of the ‘Unifying Liberal Myth’ in 1906 Oaxaca,” at East Tennessee State University. When he isn’t brewing beer or writing, you can find him in Mexico where he has spent several years researching in Oaxaca, Veracruz, Puebla, and Mexico City.

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