By Sarah Mosqueda
As we shift into warm, drinking-on-a-patio weather, you might be looking forward to celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo has become popularized as the drinking-on-a-patio holiday. But the origins of Cinco de Mayo have less to do with Tequila and more to do with unexpected victory.
“It really is an underdog story,” says Ruben Espinoza, Assistant Professor & Director of
Latinx and Latin American Studies at Chapman University in Orange, California.
Cinco de Mayo is often incorrectly billed as Mexican Independence Day, but that’s September 16. Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the Battle of Puebla.
In the early 1860s after the Mexican Reform War, Mexico had fallen into debt to France, Britain and Spain. As a result, Mexican President Benito Juárez placed a moratorium on repayments of interest on foreign loans. This prompted Spain, Britain and France to send joint forces into Mexico. Spain and Britain withdrew, however, when they learned French Emperor, Napoleon III, was planning to overthrow the Juárez government and conquer Mexico. French troops, led by General Charles Ferdinand Latrille de Lorencez, headed toward Mexico City. But first they had to go through Puebla.
“The French forces were very equipped,” Espinoza says.
In contrast, the Mexican troops, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, were more of a militia than an army made up mostly of farmers. And yet, in a victorious battle that took place on May 5, 1862, Mexican forces beat the French.
Juárez wasted no time declaring the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla a national holiday known as “Battle of Puebla Day” or “Battle of Cinco de Mayo.” Some sources claim the declaration of the holiday was made as early as May 9, 1862.
“That battle wasn’t the end of the war,” Espinoza says, “France occupied Mexico for five years.”
The French retreated for a year but ultimately overtook Mexico when they returned in 1863, where they remained until 1867.
“And there is certainly French influence in Mexican culture today as result. For example, with the pastries,” says Espinoza.
Mexicans and Mexican Americans may have grown up dipping orejas in coffee or hot chocolate, but these crunchy, buttery pastries are known as palmiers, or “palm trees” in France where they originated.
Today, in the city of Puebla, more than 20,000 people celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a civic parade routed along Boulevard Cinco de Mayo. There is also a historic reenactment of the battle. But beyond Puebla, it isn’t a big holiday in modern Mexican culture.
“It is not celebrated on large scale in Mexico anywhere outside of Puebla,” Espinoza says.
Cinco de Mayo is a very popular holiday in the United Sates, however. There are several opinions about how it fell into favor here.
Some point to the fact that during the time period the Battle of Puebla took place, the United States was embroiled in its own Civil War. Napoleon III was rumored to have considered supporting the confederacy, and a French takeover of Mexico could have possibly made Mexico a Confederate-friendly country. The news of the victory of Battle of Puebla might have been a moral boost for West Coast Latinos living in free states.
Others believe President Roosevelt’s attempt to improve relations with Latin American countries with the creation of the “Good Neighbor Policy” in 1933 may have had an influence. The holiday was also claimed by Latino civil rights activists in the 1960s as a way to celebrate their heritage.
Beginning in the 1980s and on into the aughts, liquor and beer companies began to capitalize on the holiday as way to market to Spanish speaking audiences.
Fast forward to present day, where Cinco de Mayo has become predominately associated with margaritas and sombrero-wearing.
But Espinoza stresses Cinco de Mayo isn’t a time to perpetuate inaccurate Mexican stereotypes.
“Wearing a costume isn’t celebrating someone’s culture,” he says, “It’s actually demeaning it…don’t treat is an opportunity to wear a costume that you think represents a population of an ethnic community.”
There are actually plenty of respectful ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo that don’t involve drinking or fake mustaches.
Often, museums and parks in areas with large Hispanic populations host family friendly activities on the 5th of May. For example, Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, hosts an annual Cinco de Mayo Festival that features traditional Folklorico dancing and Mariachi music performances, along with face painting and crafts.
“We will be having a Cinco de Mayo event at Chapman,” Espinoza said, “And one of the good things about having it on a university campus is there is going to be a lecture to go along with the celebration.”
The city of Los Angeles sponsored a Cinco de Mayo Parade & Festival at Oakwood Recreation Park in Venice, California, as well. The festival included Aztec Dancers, Mariachi, a classic car show, the Venice High School Band and of course, Mexican food.
“It’s a holiday that is big in US now,” Espinoza says, “and it seems like it’s here to stay. As individuals, it is important for us to learn some of that history.”