I had not been in San Antonio long when I first encountered el Cinco de Mayo. There was a parade. Of course, in San Antonio, there are about 300 parades a year and so, I thought, why not celebrate the 5th of May. I was told it was a big holiday in Mexico. Or something. Based on the ads for the celebration, it was to commemorate drinking beer and listening to mariachi bands. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
It was a while before I learned what happened on May 5th. It is not Mexican Independence Day. That comes September 16 and is also cause of celebration, parades and beer-drinking. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the battle of Puebla in 1862, when Mexican forces under General Ignacio Zaragoza emphatically defeated a larger and more experienced French army that had invaded Mexico. It did not, however, end the French invasion or the war. The French won a protracted series of battles and drove out President Benito Juarez to exile. Napoleon II of France then installed a puppet, Maximilian, an Austrian, as emperor. So, that means Cinco de Mayo commemorates a Mexican victory that presaged the ultimate defeat and establishment of a French-backed emperor on a nation now used to democratic rule. It did not end well for Maximilian. But that has nothing to do with why celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
Oddly, it’s not that big a celebration in Mexico. The State of Puebla sees it as a Big Deal. But it has been celebrated consistently in California since 1863, while Mexico sees it as a regional holiday. Now, there are more than 120 Cinco de Mayo celebrations in more than 20 states.
Often, you will hear US citizens, usually grumpy old farts who can’t figure out why English isn’t the official language in Texas, Colorado, Colorado, New Mexico and other states that were once Mexico, wonder why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And the reply is: Why not? We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, right?
If honoring the contributions of Latino culture and language to the United States – and for most old farts, it’s not – then understand it also celebrates the drive toward freedom and it’s costs. That makes it a universal celebration and, perhaps, a uniquely American one. Some historians say the victory at the Battle of Puebla kept the French army busy for another year, breaking up Napoleon II’s goal of helping the Confederacy by providing base of support, as well as a continuing threat to Union forces.
Besides, it’s an official US holiday. On June 7, 2005, Congress called on the president to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo ‘with appropriate ceremonies and activities.’ Which appears to be parades, mariachis and beer.