Cinco de Mayo’s American roots

Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman A-List photos from La Condesa's Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.

Arnold Wells / For American-Statesman
A-List photos from La Condesa’s Cinco de Mayo block party on Sunday, May 5, 2013.

This week sombreros, colorful embroidered dresses, Mexican beer ads, as well as green, red and white streamers, will have been prominent in preparation for today: Cinco de Mayo. It’s one of several days of the year that many Americans use as an excuse to eat, drink and celebrate.

What some Americans may not know is that Cinco de Mayo, or 5th of May, not only has its roots in Mexican history, but also very much so in Texas history — and by osmosis, its roots in Texas history makes Cinco de Mayo American, too.

To clarify: Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s Independence Day. That highly celebrated holiday would be 16 de Septiembre. (Yep. Mexico’s equivalent of the Fourth of July is Sept. 16.) What then, you ask, is celebrated on May 5th? This day commemorates an outnumbered — 2,000 to 6,000 — Mexican army’s 1862 victory over French soldiers at the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War. However, this one successful battle did not end the French intervention in Mexico. Mexican victory over the French would not come until  1866. (Which explains why Cinco de Mayo doesn’t make it onto Mexico’s list of national holidays.)

Where are the American ties in this? Let us count the ways:

  1. Though Texas was once a territory of Mexico, it wasn’t at the time of the Battle of Puebla. By then, the United States had already purchased Louisiana from France in an agreement that also included handing over Texas. Yes, technically, Texas — like other cotton-growing and slave-holding states—had seceded in early 1861 from the Union to join the Confederate States of America at the time of French intervention in Mexico, but it’s still important to note because …
  1. The man credited with leading the Mexican troops to victory at the battle of Puebla was from Texas. As University of Texas history professor Emilio Zamora writes, “The celebration of the battle of Puebla also acknowledges the heroic role of Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, a 32-year officer from Goliad, Texas. Soon after the surrender of Veracruz, Juárez had appointed him minister of war and navy, and assigned him to lead the Army of the East and the defense of Puebla.” So, yeah. A Texan won the battle.
  2. The American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s role in the Franco-American war. Yes, the Americans helped Mexico defeat the French. A year after the battle of Puebla and after victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg here at home, President Lincoln turned his attention to the Rio Grande borderlands. In a letter to the Union commander in New Orleans, Nathaniel Banks, Lincoln wrote: “Recent events in Mexico,” he said, “render early action in Texas more important than ever.” Troops were sent and, eventually, the French were forced out of Mexico.
  3.  Cinco de Mayo celebrations have taken place in the U.S.since after both the Franco-Mexico and American Civil Wars. In the beginning, Latinos in California and the other parts of the U.S. celebrated Cinco de Mayo with parades where people dressed in Civil War uniforms and give speeches on the Battle of Puebla.
  4. Today, more than 150 years later, the celebrations continue as cities organize official Cinco de Mayo festivities and American schoolchildren perform Mexican folkloric dances and recite Cinco de Mayo-inspired poems and plays to celebrate the occasion.