By D. Lanier Shook May 3, 2013
I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about a people who had every reason to be discouraged. It’s a story about people who saw the world coming apart around them. It’s a story about what they did next.
I’m talking about the story behind Cinco de Mayo. I’ve always appreciated what the Mexican people did for the United States when we were a little preoccupied with our own Civil War. But this year I’m more inspired than ever about the holiday. Now you’re going to learn more about Cinco de Mayo than 70% of the American population knows. And you’ll learn why it provides an important life lesson and why it’s actually a very American story.
To found out about the background for The Fifth of May I grabbed my local library’s copy of Mexico: A Country Study. This is one of those white hard-covered books the Library of Congress puts out about different countries. They’re thorough, concise, and I love them.
According to this book Cinco de Mayo’s roots go back to the 1840s when American forces defeated General Santa Anna in the Mexican War. The loss of territory and prestige alienated young, reform minded Mexicans. Led by Benito Juarez they forced the General’s resignation and then wrote a new Constitution.
Unfortunately, not everyone in Mexican society approved of the changes and this led to the three year long War of Reform. The nation was bankrupt and European powers wanted their money. When Spain, Britain, and France sent troops to collect their debts Napoleon III of France decided to reestablish an empire in the New World.
The battle that we celebrate on the Fifth of May occurred in the Mexican town of Puebla. The fact this battle reminds me of ones in the American Civil War shows how widespread Napoleonic tactics were taught. This is only one interesting parallel between simultaneous events north and south of the Rio Grande.
For a concise history of the battle and the holiday I was fortunate to be directed to El Cinco de Mayo: American Tradition by Dr. David E. Hayes-Bauttista, Director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture. In his introduction Dr. Bautista describes how his great-great grandfather was at the Battle of Puebla and was saved from execution by a strange birthmark. This book is an excellent study of Cinco de Mayo, Latinos in California, and the role those California Latinos played in the American Civil War. Click here to check out the book on Amazon.com where you can read the full story of his grand-father. While you can’t read the text itself, the introduction is there and so are the notes and bibliography which are evidence of the work’s value and quality.
The Battle of Puebla began on May Fifth when French and Mexican forces faced off at Puebla. After two hours of artillery exchanges two French columns advanced against the city’s forts but were driven back by bayonet charges, cavalry charges, and finally a rain storm. The next day the French tried to take Puebla again but were thrown back and, just like at Gettysburg, the defenders received reinforcements of over ten thousand Mexican forces. Unlike at Gettysburg, the French attackers dug in for two days before finally leaving on May 8.
Latinos in California were paying close attention to events both in Mexico and in Virginia. These loyal American citizens had stakes in both the Civil Wars and actively supported the cause of the Federal government. Dr. Hayes-Bautista believes the first Cinco de Mayo celebration took place in Tuolumne County, California, at the mining town of Columbia.
These people actively supported for President Lincoln’s reelection because they believed that a Confederate victory would return slavery to Mexico for the first time in 30 years. The fate of President Juarez was tied to President Lincoln and the success of the French in Mexico was connected to the success of the Confederacy. News of Antietam arrived in California about the same time as the death of Mexican General Zaragoza — the victor of Puebla.
At this low point in both Civil Wars juntas patrioticas mexicanas — Mexican patriotic assemblies— were formed throughout California. These didn’t end when the wars did and they helped form and shape what became Cinco de Mayo. This holiday is a prime example of how America is a nation of immigrants.
I had always known Cinco de Mayo was a key moment in the history of both Mexico and the United States. I’d known that this was the moment the French tried to exploit our preoccupation with the Civil War to violate the Monroe Doctrine. I even realized that Napoleon III of France was champing at the bit to recognize and help the Confederacy. But I’d never realized that the two Civil Wars were so closely tied together.
Now I realize Cinco de Mayo is more than that. It’s the story of people making a new life under a strange government finding a way to encourage themselves. Things looked bad — real bad — and they needed to remind themselves of a happier time.
We all go through tough times and the temptation to give up hope can be over-whelming. It’s not easy to remember good times — sometimes it can even make the pain worse. But when darkness is around you, you’ve got to use whatever light you can find.
Enemies, circumstances, and even well-meaning friends will tell you to be realistic. But realism isn’t what you always need. Sometimes you need to remember the glories of years gone by. Sometimes you have to draw on that strength just to get by. And that’s what I’ll remember on Sunday, the Fifth of May.