I grew up up rural western Pennsylvania, and I never even heard about Cinco De Mayo until I was grown up. I mean: hell, we didn’t even have tacos until the 1980s. Not in the town where I lived. Even after I first heard of Cinco De Mayo, I just assumed it was another one of those foreign holidays we Americans like so much to appropriate, an obscure (often stern and religious) celebration, like St Patrick’s Day, that we explode into full-blown binge-fests of sin an libertine indulgences–you know, because we can’t help our ingrained need to rebel against the puritanical undercurrent of our bawdy culture. And Cinco De Mayo is well on the way–just watch all the college bars running promotions backed by the makers of Mexican-themed beer and booze.
So, what the hell is it?
It is not, as I thought, a sort of Mexican Fourth of July. Nor does it have anything to do with dead people–that’s Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, but I understand your confusion: all those foreign holidays sound the same to us.
Cinco de Mayo does commemorate a Mexican military victory over the invading French army on May 5, 1862, but the holiday has always been a much bigger deal in the USA because Mexican latinos realized, in beating back the French, that the Union could also win the Civil War.
Wait? What Union? Do I mean Lincoln and Grant and all those guys?
Yep. The French, you see, being back in the Empire game under Napolean III (you’d think they would have learned after the first two) naturally allied themselves with the the Confederacy, with their mutually twisted dreams of idealized courtly fairytale nonsense. Most Hispanics, on the other hand, weren’t thrilled about France’s stated goal of crushing a thriving young democracy and restoring a Mexican monarchy (under France’s auspices, of course); nor were they thrilled with slavery. Or Texas, which had pretty much been taken from Mexico by force, and was still a haven for vicious mercenary raiders who, fancying themselves freedom fighters, crossed the border into Mexico to steal, rape, scalp and murder Native Americans and Mexicans alike.
Hispanics in the American west saw a two-fronted war, with the confederacy to the east and the French pushing from the south, and in California and Oregon in particular it seemed that the army of freedom and democracy had struck a huge blow against the elitist forces of slavery and monarchy. It had little to do with Mexican patriotism–it was about defending freedom and democracy.
In fact, Latinos were joining the Union army, Union cavalry, Union navy. Spanish language newspapers in the west closely covered every single battle of the Civil War.
Networks of Latino groups called “juntas patrioticas mejicanas,” or Mexican patriotic assemblies, mostly in California but also in Oregon, Nevada and Arizona, with 14,000 members, organized parades, speeches, dances, banquets and bull fights as a morale builder for President Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juarez, and from 1862 to 1867, the public memory of Cinco de Mayo was forged in the American West.
In the years after the Civil War, veterans of the Union and Mexican armies would put on their uniforms and give speeches every Cinco de Mayo but the meaning of the holiday changed as years passed, first becoming a David versus Goliath tale among Mexican immigrants in the 1900s, then morphing into a celebration of U.S.-Mexican unity during World War II. In the 1960s, the meaning shifted towards pride in Mexican heritage and on in the past decade has become what Professor David Hayes-Bautista calls an, “undeniable commercialization in the late 20th century, a fake holiday recently invented by beverage companies. Now it’s become this big commercial holiday and a wonderful opportunity to get services and products in front of the Latino market and it even got its own postage in 1996 and in 2005 President Bush even had a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House.”