There's More to Cinco De Mayo than Many Americans KnowRoundup
tags: Mexican history, Cinco De Mayo
Ruben A. Arellano is an Indigenous Chicano scholar and professor of history at Dallas College — Mountain View Campus.
Cinco de Mayo may be best known as an overly commercial holiday, stripped of meaning and reliant on stereotypes about Mexico, at least for the majority of Americans toasting with margaritas. But the holiday actually marks an important historical event, and for Mexican Americans, the celebration of victory at the Battle of Puebla has served as a reminder of their own resilience and survival.
Mexican Americans became the first group to publicly celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a triumph over European imperial aggression. They recognized that the French invasion of Mexico had commonalities with the Civil War then being waged by the Confederacy against the United States. Their celebrations championed freedom winning against the forces of tyranny in the two countries and were — at least until the late 20th century — an occasion for building community and identity among Mexican Americans.
Mexico gained sovereignty from Spain in 1821 after a long war for independence. It occupied territory stretching from its current southern boundaries up to the modern U.S. states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. Even though Texas fought its own war of independence, it gets included in the discussion as well. After provoking a war with a politically unstable, financially strapped and militarily weakened Mexico, the United States won much of the territory that had been Mexico’s far northern frontier after the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.
The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the war and established the current border between the United States and Mexico. It also gave Mexicans who found themselves on the U.S. side of the new border a year to decide whether they would remain in their homeland or move south to a country most had never known. After a year, those who remained would become American citizens and their property rights would be protected.
One way those who stayed coped with the changes was to form organizations, such as the “juntas patrioticas Mejicanas” (Mexican patriotic assemblies), throughout the American Southwest. As the Mexican American scholar David Hayes-Bautista has shown, California boasted at least 129 juntas patrioticas Mejicanas by the 1860s. These groups reinforced the bicultural nature of the Spanish-speaking peoples of the United States while celebrating their newfound Americanness. They valued the democratic ideals of their country, despite enduring Anglo violence, racism, aggression and land dispossession in the United States. Out of this shared experience, the Californios (ethnic Mexican residents of California), Mexican immigrants and other Central and South Americans in this emergent community felt a common bond and began to identify as “Hispano-Americanos.”
In the meantime, in late 1861, under Napoleon III, France invaded Mexico with the pretense of collecting a debt. The English, Spanish and French had all lent money to Mexico, but when President Benito Juárez defeated internal conservative factions, his enemies fled and took the leftover money with them. Juárez announced a two-year delay in repayment, but France came to collect. Napoleon secretly wanted to invade Mexico and install a puppet government. Spain and England, who were also owed money, refused to join Napoleon’s imperial machinations.
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