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[Update 5/3/19: revised for minor grammatical errors]
Year in and year out, the Mexican-American holiday Cinco de Mayo spurs countless discussions and commentaries from well-meaning folks who want to set the record straight on what the celebration is and is not about. I too have delved into this conversation in the past but stopped doing it long-ago, because I grew tired of repeating the same thing year after year. My approach to the topic has been one of trying to answer a very significant underlying question about the celebration itself: Why do Mexican Americans celebrate this holiday in Aztlan more so than even Mexicans do?
I have posited that ethnic Mexicans celebrate the holiday in the United States because General Ignacio Zaragoza was a native Tejano, born in La Bahía del Espíritu Santo, Tejas back when it was still a part of Mexico – La Bahia is now known as Goliad, Texas. The way I saw it, this was an obvious reason why Chicana/os celebrated the French defeat at the Battle of Puebla. And, since the hero of that victory had been one of our very own Tejanos, in my mind, it was logical to say that Zaragoza was the pride of all Mexican Americans. Suffice it to say, recently published research on the subject has complicated this view.
In the book, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition (2012), David E. Hayes-Bautista reveals that the tradition of celebrating Cinco de Mayo can be traced to nineteenth-century ethnic Mexican organizations found throughout the Southwest called “juntas patrioticas mejicanas” (Mexican patriotic assemblies). These assemblies started springing up all over Aztlan, and by the late 1860s, a network of at least 129 groups had emerged. It is safe to say that these are possibly the first Mexican American networks of a political nature. Most of Hayes-Bautista’s research centers on California, but he notes that these assemblies were found, not only in the Southwest—where you’d expect, but even as far northwest as Oregon State.
According to Hayes-Bautista, one of the earliest instances calling for the public celebration of Cinco de Mayo was in 1864. On May fifth of that year, Antonio Mancillas, editor of San Francisco’s La Voz de Mejico, “set out to convince his readers that Cinco de Mayo was worth remembering,” because of its historical significance. On that very same day, the local junta patriotica of the gold-mining town of Sonora in Tuolumne County gathered a crowd in what is one of the earliest instances of a Cinco de Mayo celebration:
“…drawn by the ceremonial firing of a cannon to witness the raising of the Mexican flag amid enthusiastic cheers, after which Eugenio Cardenas made “an eloquent speech,” which he began by acknowledging his audience’s patriotism, the junta’s role in organizing the proceedings … That night, the junta sponsored a dance in the Greenwood Theater, which had been decorated with a portrait of the late General Ignacio Zaragoza, the hero of Puebla…“
The celebration carried on through the night with speakers delivering speech after speech and young girls and women reciting poetry and singing the Mexican national anthem. These were serious events reminiscent of those held throughout Mexico during the Fiestas Patrias, and not party-driven fandangos that were ubiquitous at the time.
These patriotic organizations went to great lengths in order to commemorate the decisive battle, because it served as a beacon of hope against the imperialist forces that were intent in reinstating a European monarchy in the Americas. The broader context here ties into the U.S. Civil War, the international cotton trade, and Mexico’s huge financial debt to France. The important point that Hayes-Bautista makes is that “this network functioned … to support the defense of freedom and democracy in both the United States and Mexico.” So what’s all of this have anything to do with our current celebrations?
The U.S.-Mexico War (1846-48) was still a recent memory, and many Mexicans resented the gringo aggression that had led to the major loss of land (about one half of Mexico’s territory). Those facts notwithstanding, the simultaneous conflicts that were tearing both countries apart (the Confederacy in the U.S. and the French Foreign Legion in Mexico) led immigrants to notice a common cause of freedom against the forces of tyranny between the countries. But what really inspired these juntas was Mexico’s president, Benito Juárez, who declared Cinco de Mayo a national holiday after the French defeat at the Battle of Puebla.
By the 1920s, the last of the juntas patrioticas mejicanas had disappeared, possibly due to the upheaval of the Mexican Revolution, but the memory of their celebrations lived on. With the continued influx of Mexican immigrants came new ideas and new celebrations, and Dieciseis de Septiembre slowly gained prominence in the barrios as a way to celebrate the Revolución and the overthrow of the dictator Porfirio Díaz. In time, with new immigrants from Mexico bringing new traditions in the middle of the twentieth-century, the Dieciseis celebration became the most prominent ethnic Mexican celebration in the Southwest.
The contemporary iteration of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations date only to the Chicano Movement era. By then, the growing activism and renewed interest in Mexican cultural traditions sparked a revival of the dormant holiday. In an article entitled, “The Real Meaning of Cinco de Mayo” (2013), scholar Antonio Sanchez posits that:
“… it was not until the late 1960s that Chicano civil rights activists on college campuses purposely identified and adopted the Battle of Puebla and May 5 as their day to celebrate this Mexican victory in the United States. It was celebrated predominately in the Southwest United State[s] and California, and it was here where the activist community lifted this date out of the Chicano barrios and onto Main Street. College campuses for the first time heard the cries of, “Viva la raza – viva Cinco de Mayo!” That cry was a bold statement of historical and cultural self-determination, cultural allegiance with Mexico and in defiant recognition of the accomplishments of the capable Mestizo people of Aztlan, Mexico’s land lost in 1848. It was an affirmation of the cultural and social solidarity of the Mexican American community with Mexico’s past.”
Sanchez explains that Cinco de Mayo became significant for Chicana/o activists because they viewed their struggle in the same light as that of the poor an ill-equipped makeshift Mexican army that defeated what was then a global superpower. He posits that this idea of “triumph in the face of overwhelming odds and adversity” resonated with young Chicanas and Chicanos:
“The Chicano activist movement in the 1960s and 70s used this date to inspire a community whose contribution and history had been marginalized, under-recognized, and deliberately overlooked. Together they found a new strength, and as an underdog community adopted this day to celebrate a truly uniting sense of shared identity.”
Not until the 1980s, after the Chicano movement had dissipated, did the holiday become corporatized and commercialized. The radical politics of the sixties and seventies gave way to moderate and accommodationist politics – the “Hispanic” age had arrived. Corporations that Chicana/os had previously boycotted saw the marketing potential and made inroads into that community through promises of philanthropy and grants. One such business sector was the alcohol industry, in particular the Coors Brewing Company. After many years of being boycotted, Coors wanted “to improve its image among Chicano activists” and become “the largest supporter of the Cinco de Mayo as a holiday event.”
By the nineties, the holiday had been so commercialized and stripped of its original meaning, that people forgot the roots of its creation and the radical purpose for its Chicana/o revival. Now we are left with an Anglicized version of an event that was once a vehicle through which the ethnic Mexican community in the U.S. could not only celebrate the triumphs of its cultural homeland, but also those of its adopted one. If we can only get the general public to understand that, the immigration debate in this country would look a lot different. “Viva Juárez, y que viva el Cinco de Mayo!”
Tlakatekatl is a long-time Chicano activist, a danzante Mexika, and a scholar with a PhD in history. A founding member of Yankwik Mexikayotl, his research explores Chicana & Chicano indigeneity and its deep connections to ethnic Mexican indigenist nationalism. He has presented at various institutions and conferences, including the University of North Texas—Denton, Southern Methodist University, and the National Association of Chicana & Chicano Scholars (NACCS). He currently teaches history at UT-El Paso and is working on turning his dissertation into a book.
Follow Tlakatekatl on twitter @tlakatekatl
 David E. Hayes-Bautista, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 103.
 Hayes-Bautista, 101.
 According to Hayes-Bautista, ethnic Mexicans were using the Mexican Independence celebrations to commemorate the overthrow of the Porfirian regime.
 Antonio Sanchez, “The Real Meaning of Cinco de Mayo,” 2013, 3, https://www.cwu.edu/sites/default/files/Sanchez%20Cinco%20de%20Mayo%201.pdf.
 Sanchez, 3–4.
 Sanchez, 4.