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Why Should African Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

La Voz de Austin

Three Questions:
What is Cinco de Mayo?
Why do we celebrate it here in the United Status of America?
Why should Black Americans celebrate this holiday?

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In a nutshell, Cinco de Mayo is about an event that took place in Mexico in 1862. On this date, the 5th of May, a rag tag army of Mexicans, led by a general who was born in Texas, defeated the most powerful army in the world in the small town of Puebla.

The French, who had come to Mexico to “collect” on an overdue debt and were so shocked that a bunch of Mexicans hiding behind rocks and trees could inflict so much damage, that they were forced to retreat and regroup. The French came back and not only took Puebla, but all of Mexico and ruled the country for several years. That is the basic story.

Next question – Why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the United States of America?

According to Dr. David E. Hayes-Bautista in a paper published by the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture about the origin of Cinco de Mayo in the United States, the modern American focus on that day first started in California in the 1860s. Bautista writes, “Far up in the gold country California of (now Columbia State Park) Mexican miners were so overjoyed at the news that they spontaneously fired off rifles shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches.”

The 2007 UCLA paper notes that “The holiday, which has been celebrated in California continuously since 1863, is virtually ignored in Mexico. Cinco de Mayo is important to California because it was invented here,” said Hayes- Bautista, who is the director of the center. “It provides a collective identity for all Latinos, whether they were born here in California or immigrated from Mexico, Central America or South America. It binds them together in an identity — it is as important to Latinos as the Alamo is to Anglo-Texans.”

The paper by Hayes-Bautista and co-author Cynthia L. Chamberlin, the center’s historian, appeared in the Southern California Quarterly and is titled “Cinco de Mayo’s First Seventy-Five Years in Alta California: From Spontaneous Behavior to Sedimented Memory, 1862 to 1937.”

Los Angeles, California has had an annual Cinco de Mayo celebration for the past 138 years. In Tuscon, Arizona, school board minutes state: “A new holiday was inaugurated in 1910, two days being given off May 5 and 6 for the Mexican celebration “Cinco de Mayo.”

In the May 1, 1913 issue of La Prensa, a Spanish Language weekly in San Antonio, Texas, a picture of General Ignacio Zaragoza is on the cover, and a poem about him
can be found on the literary page along with an interview with a veteran of the battle. In the following week’s edition, the newspaper gave a summary of celebrations held in Waco and Austin. In Houston, Texas, Mexicanos were celebrating Cinco de Mayo as early as 1935.

Why should Black Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

Now for the last question, why should Black Americans celebrate an incident that took place in Mexico? To answer this question properly we have to go into a little more detail.

Let us start with why the French had sailed across the Atlantic to collect on a debt. Recall that Mexico had lost almost half its territory to the United States in the Mexican American War 1846-1848. Afterwards, internal politics, personalities and conflicts put further stress on the country.

Three costly years of civil war over the implementation of the Mexican Constitution of 1857 had just ended. The Constitution’s defenders, the Liberals, defeated the Conservative opposition, with both sides taking expensive loans. Once in power, the Liberal government faced a severe fiscal crisis.

On July 17, 1861 President Benito Juárez ordered the suspension of foreign debt payments for a period of two years, citing the great financial difficulties of the country and promising to continue repayment after this moratorium. In response, Great Britain, Spain and France signed a tripartite agreement and sent military forces to take the customhouse in the port of Veracruz as a means of securing repayment.

By January, 1862, all three nations landed troops outside Veracruz. The intention was to force Mexico into negotiations. Unfortunately, not all the parties were concerned solely with debt repayment. Napoleon III sought to establish a monarchy in Mexico to restore French influence in the Western hemisphere. This idea was not new.

As early as 1844, the French Minister to Mexico drew up plans for the invasion and the imposition of a French prince. Napoleon’s goals were further encouraged by Conservative exiles, who saw a monarchy as a means of preserving their privileges, and the support of the surviving Conservative opposition.

When it became clear that the French had no intention of leaving Mexico after successful debt negotiations, the tripartite agreement was dissolved and the British and Spanish forces withdrew from Mexico.

The United States with Abraham Lincoln as President, was in the midst of the Civil War. But he and his administration were following the events in Mexico with great concern. Given the secession of the South, European intervention in Mexico might have led to a more active French role in the American Civil War.

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