By Julie R Butler
In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is largely seen as an excuse to get together with friends and feast on tacos, guacamole, and margaritas, even though only 1 in 10 Americans know what Cinco de Mayo is actually about.
The Significance of Cinco de Mayo
Of course, anyone with connections to Mexico knows that Cinco de Mayo isn’t the Mexican equivalent of the Fourth of July – it’s not even a Mexican national holiday – and that it’s actually a celebration of the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on 5 May, 1862, that represents the capacity of the Mexican people to come together to defeat what was considered at the time the world’s most powerful army.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the city of Puebla with a huge parade along with battle reenactments, followed by music, dancing, and food. There’s also the Festival International 5 de Mayo, which lasts from 26 April through 12 May and features over 900 artists from nine different countries at 35 venues.
But why is Cinco de Mayo, which isn’t really commemorated much in Mexico except in Puebla, celebrated in the United States at all?
The Cinco de Mayo – U.S. Civil War Connection
Did you know that the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the States occurred in 1862, when Mexicans and other Latin Americans who had gone to California during the Gold Rush of 1849 were showing their support for the Union during the U.S. Civil War?
When Latin American countries won their independence from Spain, the new nations abolished slavery and provided citizenship to all people, regardless of race or social standing. So naturally, the Mexicans in California and elsewhere in the West were on the side of the Union in opposition to slavery during the U.S. Civil War. Plus, as people of color, many saw the prospect of a Confederate victory as a personal threat.
When news reports about the scrappy Mexicans’ defeat of the mighty French military reached them, they joined together in juntas patrióticas to not only celebrate the unlikely victory at Puebla but to also mobilize in support the Union war effort while denouncing the Confederacy, which was being supported by French Emperor Napoleon III.
Celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Gringolandia
Although the original reason has become obscured by history, the tradition of celebrating Cinco de Mayo in Los Angeles has continued without interruption ever since 1862. And today, there are major festivals celebrating Mexican culture in many U.S. cities. These are some of the biggest ones:
- Fiesta Broadway in Los Angeles, California
- Cinco de Mayo “Celebrate Culture” Festival in Denver, Colorado
- Cinco de Mayo Phoenix Festival in Phoenix, Arizona
- Viva Market Square! in San Antonio, Texas
- Cinco by the Bay in San Diego, California
- Cinco de Mayo West Side in Saint Paul, Minnesota
So regardless of which side of the Rio Grande you’re on, there’s reason to celebrate the triumph of the little guy over the big and powerful, the vanquishing of slavery, and the vibrant food, dance, and musical traditions of Mexico – all at the same time. ¡Viva Cinco de Mayo!