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Cinco de Mayo

Tue, 2015-05-05
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A California Tradition

Every year hundreds come to LA Plaza to learn about the significance and origins of the Cinco de Mayo celebration in California and Latino history. We invite you to learn more about the history of this holiday and its connection to California’s history through the eyes of LA Plaza staff member, Roberto!

Cinco de Mayo is upon us once again and countless of colorful celebrations across American cities will take place commemorating the 1862 victory of Mexico over the French army at the battle of Puebla. Surprisingly, Cinco de Mayo a seemingly Mexican holiday will not be celebrated with the same fervor in Mexico as it is in the United States. Why?

Recently, I had the opportunity to read Dr. David E. Hayes-Bautista’s insightful book Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, where he contends the reason is it isn’t a Mexican holiday, instead it’s an American tradition created by Mexican and Latino communities living in California.

The year was 1862; Napoleon III of France was in the process of invading Mexico as a response to President Juarez’s decision to suspend debt payment to France. In the north, The United States was a year into its Civil War as the Confederate States attempted to secede and establish a republic centered on slavery. The conflicts raging in both nations were of great concern to the Mexican community in the United States as they were now meshed into the fabric of both countries.

Latinos in California conflated both conflicts as a threat to democracy and freedom; they understood that the French Intervention was a strategic move to dispose of democracy in Mexico in order to align Mexico with the Confederacy. Therefore when news of Juarez’s military victory over the French reached California the community celebrated with jubilant festivities because it represented a much grander victory - a triumph of freedom over tyranny.

For the duration of the American Civil War and the French Intervention in Mexico, community organizations called Juntas Patrioticas Mexicanas organized annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations in cities across California to solidify public memory of the time when as Dr. Hayes-Bautista puts it “the army of freedom and democracy finally beat the army of slavery and elitism”. Parades and patriotic speeches celebrating the resilience of democracy both in Mexico and the United States helped boost public morale and strengthen the belief of an eventual victory of both the U.S. and Mexico over France and the Confederacy.

Cinco de Mayo is a holiday created by Mexicans in the United States who believed in freedom and democracy -- perhaps the oldest Mexican American tradition in the U.S.

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

-Roberto Marinez

Roberto currently works LA Plaza’s Development and Admissions Assistant. Visit LA Plaza and he will say hi!