Cinco De Mayo. You may think you know; but do you? The history behind it is a deep dive into global politics, media and money. Cinco De Mayo is literally as California kid as Ritchie Valens with an N.M. battle for a cousin. And why did El Cinco turn out so Bob? Nerd out for a minute. Because as my cousin Ritchie would say, “Here’s a bit of a rattlesnake.”
Let’s take it way back to the Treaty of Hidalgo for a second. A mere 14 years before May 5, 1862, the 1848 signature between Mexico and the United States found a massive portion of North American land conceded to U.S. control. And with that came the lives of some 80,000 Mexicans and South Americans who had found their way into California at what was already the beginning of the Gold Rush before 1849. This number does not include the huge collection of people who overnight became United States “citizens” or stewards. That is a different story. Interestingly enough, these pockets of ex-pats tried in vain to keep up with news from their home country.
The book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition by author David Hayes-Bautista is where much of this early information is pulled from. The biggest wealth of information coming from the archives of La Voz de Méjico, which was one of the largest papers at the time. Publishing out of San Francisco in March of 1862, it came out three times a week and had correspondents as far away as Brownsville, Texas. The big news was Benito Juarez was again in power after a multi-year battle with the conservative opposition. Oddly enough, newly elected Abraham Lincoln was also dealing with very much the same problems. The Mexican government had taken out loans from foreign countries to stop the conservative rebels. And on the day the American Civil war started, Juarez announced he would suspend payment to three countries: Great Britain, Spain and France. At the same time, Benito Juarez was dodging credit calls, and the “Tripartite Alliance” sent out a straight-up goon army to break Benito’s legs. The French saw this as a moment to retake control of Mexico while the U.S. was busy.
Mexico City was the target, with Puebla along the route. On May 5 the French lined up north of the town where Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza had retreated to lie in wait. The town was a stronghold, with five forts and two larger structures on opposite hilltops protected by high stone walls and deep trenches. It took three assaults of a thousand men all day, but the rock walls stood. The ragtag group of untrained countrymen fired grapeshot and engaged in hand-to-hand combat amidst the muddy battlefield. The French fell back in retreat. A victory for Mexico! Also, a boost in the spirit of their countrymen toiling in U.S. territory.
N.M. saw its own major Civil War battle at Glorietta Pass just a few months earlier. This defeat of the Confederates was significant after their victory in Valverde, near Soccorro. These fights were critical politically for Mexico and the thousands of Mexicans in the new Southwestern U.S. territory as taxes and embargoes on trade between Mexico and the Confederate border states were made.
Soon, through the papers, Cinco would become a call to action for political groups like the Latino Sword of Honor, which took donations via the newspapers to send in support of the fight in Mexico. Donation lists show people throughout the West, including New Mexican Estipula Vaca. These were the great grandfathers and grandmothers of the Chicano movement. U.S. Hispanics and Latinos gravitated to this for a collective celebration of pride, as their National identity had just changed dramatically in 1848. The message and traditions morphed into what it is today.
Educator and scholar Jose Azul Cortes shared this: “You know, growing up we were traditional. We danced our dances. Cinco De Mayo celebrations were put on locally by my grandma. … At one point I had been asked to do this one dance, which was important, like, a solo if you will. I was all psyched about it! So then, later on, I remember visiting family in Mexico, and I was all proud telling them about this dance I performed and they were like, ‘Huh? What’s that? You guys celebrate that?’ And for us, in the states, it was a big deal.”
This is often the case, as old Mexico doesn’t see the day as having much importance. It was, most earnestly, the Mexican-American newspapers that continued promotion and coverage of celebrations in Spanish-language communities for decades. Speaking of media, the alcohol industry eventually came to realize the date’s worth as well. Adolph Coors was fresh off a bad case of “the minorities” in the 1980s. Years of boycotts regarding hiring practices took their toll. A Nov. 4, 1984 New York Times article announces Coors Brewing Company’s “Decade of the Hispanic!” The company pledged some $300 million to aid Hispanic businesses, to hire more Hispanic workers and create a marketing division devoted to Hispanic consumers. Seemingly overnight the industry realized they’d found marketing gold.
Today Cinco De Mayo is bigger than Super Bowl Sunday in terms of consumption. The largest of any holiday, accounting for $745 million in beer sales alone. Some 126 million liters of tequila are consumed annually on this date. But let’s not make this about the booze; we have a margarita section for that.
Now the tough question: How do you change the narrative of something that is seemingly manufactured? As Jose Cortes frames it, “It’s hard in the sense of economy; people have to make money. Flipping that narrative, we have to find ways to inform. The hijacking happened, corporations came to it to sell alcohol, and they are succeeding. The movements of today are all about self-identity, Standing Rock, LGBT and Indigenous communities! I don’t know if we can reclaim it fully in some context. Still, maybe it becomes a way for us to have pride based in the history and culture.”
So that’s Cinco De Mayo. Tonight, between shots, tell somebody about the battle of Puebla. The money. The old newspapers. The early Latin/Chicano movement. And how Coors called it the “Decade of the Hispanic!” If you’re gonna drink, at least buy local and Latino. Viva Puebla!