Cinco de Mayo: Why the Date Matters Beyond Sombreros and Beer

It is an interesting dichotomy every year when cities across the country—some with large Mexican or Mexican-American populations, but many without—decide to celebrate with fun shenanigans rather than the history of another country. Photo courtesy of Pan American World.

For on May 5th, 1862, the Mexican army did the impossible and defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla.

Written by Aldo Gonzalez

In the United States, the date has become associated with drunken celebration and butcherings of the Spanish language. But few celebrate the true events that lie at the heart of what many Mexicans consider a cornerstone of the Mexican identity. Instead, many Americans view it as an opportunity to drink Corona and eat Mexican food—followed, of course, by more Corona.

Many might guess that the date commemorates Mexican Independence Day. Nope. You’re about 41 years too late if you guess that. However, what the date celebrates is something just as bloody with implications for the American Civil War. For on May 5th, 1862, the Mexican army did the impossible and defeated the French army at the Battle of Puebla. At the time, the French army was considered to be the epitome of military prowess under the direction of Napoleon III.

General Ignacio Zaragoza led 4,500 equipment-deprived Mexican soldiers against 6,500 refined French soldiers. In this David-versus-Goliath battle, General Zaragoza and his soldiers had a decisive victory. Though the Mexican side suffered 87 casualties, by virtue of the blood of those soldiers, the Mexican people adopted a strong sense of national pride. Uniting against a military titan to emerge victorious strengthened a movement within Mexico pushing for democratic government.

To say that the Mexican people needed this unifying force is an understatement. Leading up to the Battle of Puebla, the Mexican Treasury was near bankruptcy after a war with the United States that had resulted in Mexico ceding 55 percent of its territory and a civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, those seeking a secular government against those seeking a government loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. Due to these economic tribulations, President Benito Juarez stated that all foreign debt payments would be suspended for two years.

Foreign debtors, including Britain, Spain, and France, sent naval forces to Veracruz to demand payments. President Juarez was able to negotiate the British and the Spanish into a withdrawal. Unfortunately, the same could not be achieved with the French, who saw the opportunity to build French influence against the United States in Latin America. Here is where we arrive at the implications of Cinco de Mayo for the United States. If General Zaragoza had fallen at the hands of Napoleon’s forces, the French would have sought to mobilize the Mexican people, alongside their own strength, on behalf of the Confederacy. One can only imagine how different the United States would look without those 4,500 Mexicans.

Yet, this history still does not explain why Cinco de Mayo has grown so popular in the United States. Why not celebrate the 16th of September for Mexico’s independence? This is a day that is actually celebrated by the entire Mexican population, unlike the fifth which is celebrated only by a few major Mexican cities. Celebration within the United States originated in California, specifically Los Angeles. Initially, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s celebrated the day as a way to bring attention to Mexican history and build unity with Americans, particularly as it affected the course of American history. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that beer companies capitalized on the date to market their product. It is safe to say that the marketing worked.

It is an interesting dichotomy every year when cities across the countrysome with large Mexican or Mexican-American populations, but many withoutdecide to celebrate with fun shenanigans rather than the history of another country. All the while, detrimental rhetoric disparaging Mexicans is spewed by the man sitting in the Oval Office at the White House and the rest of his political party.

The reality of the situation is that most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans don’t care if people celebrate the date. In fact, that is what the fathers and mothers of the Chicano movement wanted: to mitigate racism against Mexicans by celebrating the history our countries share. The point of contention emerges when the date is reduced to taco bowls and alcohol by authority figures who propel harmful stereotypes about Mexican people.

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