Photo credits: Battle of Puebla courtesy of Wikipedia; White House South Lawn celebration with Bush from Time magazine; East Room celebration with Biden and Obama from AP.
People celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the United States may not know the history of the date, and the special significance in Mexico. Here’s a quick look at both.
In the USA, historians at the University of California at Los Angeles have traced origins of observances in California to the 1860s. Time magazine traces the rise of popularity in the mid-1900s to the Chicano movement. According to Wikipedia, Cinco de Mayo celebrations of Mexican culture and heritage spread from Los Angeles and San Jose to other cities with large Mexican-American populations, such as Houston and Chicago. By 2006, the Journal of American Culture reported official Cinco de Mayo events in more than 150 cities across the USA.
In Mexico, it’s a day to commemorate El Día de la Batalla de Puebla on May 5, 1862, mostly through ceremonial military events. The battle was an important military victory by ill-equipped and out-manned Mexican troops over French invasionary troops. In 1862, Mexican president Benito Juárez declared the date a national holiday, as verified by the Congressional Record.
However, the victory was short-lived. The French regrouped, captured the Mexican capital within a year, forced Juárez into exile, and installed a French puppet monarchy. Nowadays in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a major event celebrated in the historic city of Puebla. Many schools throughout Mexico close for the day, but government offices and banks and other businesses remain open because it’s not a statuary national holiday. Historian Christopher Minster has an overview.
Historians and educators including Michael Hogan rightfully recognize the importance of the day in Mexico history, and the importance of ensuing events. His book Abraham Lincoln and Mexico examines how Juárez in exile sought and received help from Lincoln as president to oppose the French occupation.
Based on archival documents, Hogan examines why and how Lincoln refused to recognize the French monarchy in Mexico as the legitimate government, and tacitly approved providing military support for Juárez in Chihuahua across the border from El Paso.
US civic and business leaders from Boston to San Francisco raised $18 million in war bonds to help Juárez, and Generals Grant and Sheridan sent more military equipment and former Union troops from the Civil War to Mexico to fight alongside Mexican troops. After Lincoln’s death in 1865, president Johnson continued the support. Eventually, Mexico forced the French troops out of Mexico in 1867, ending European presence in the Americas.
In the early 21st century, US political and civic leaders boosted Cinco de Mayo activities as a way to honor Mexican heritage and traditions. President George W. Bush hosted annual events at the White House complete with Mexican folkloric dancers, and in 2005, the Congress approved a resolution calling for national observances. President Obama continued the tradition of White House observances.
Despite such efforts to pay homage to history, the day in the USA has also become another opportunity for merchants to cash in on ethnic celebrations—not much different than St. Patrick’s Day. As Wikipedia notes, further: “Commercial interests in the United States have capitalized on the celebration, advertising Mexican products and services, with an emphasis on alcoholic beverages.” In fact, Time magazine even ranked Cinco de Mayo #4 on its 2011 list of “Top 10 Drunkest Holidays.” Sad.
The book Abraham Lincoln and Mexico is in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and in many university libraries. It’s available from Barnes&Noble, at independent bookstores, and also available from Amazon in English and Spanish.