On Tuesday, the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo will be celebrated in California, and despite the spate of drinking parties that will ensue, some want the holiday to return to a more sober celebration of Mexican independence from France.
Cinco de Mayo was initially created to commemorate the battle of Puebla de Los Angeles in east central Mexico in 1861, where Mexicans defeated more numerous and better-equipped French troops, driving the French to leave Mexico in 1867. In early 1861, Benito Juárez became president of Mexico, which could not pay its debts to England, Spain, and France. All three European countries sent naval forces to Veracruz; England and Spain agreed to negotiate with Juarez and withdrew. Napoleon III of France disagreed, and knowing that the United States was preoccupied with the Civil War, sent a French fleet that drove Juarez out of Vera Cruz. The Mexicans knew France was loyal to the American Confederacy and feared that Mexicans would become American slaves.
Under General Charles Latrille de Lorencez, 6,000 French troops attacked Puebla de Los Angeles against 2,000 irregulars Juarez sent to General Ignacio Zaragoza to defend against the assault. On May 5, 1862, Lorencez started his assault; after an all-day battle, 500 French soldiers were killed and less than 100 Mexicans.
Although the victory instilled pride in Mexicans, ultimately, the French defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City, and made Emperor Maximilian I the ruler of Mexico from 1864 to 1867. But when Napoleon III retreated in 1866, as the U.S. got involved and he was worried about war with Prussia, the emboldened Mexicans struck back, capturing Mexico City, executing Maximilian I and his generals, and preparing for Juarez to reascend to power on June 5, 1867.
Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine and author of El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, noted the propensity of college students to turn Cinco de Mayo into a drinking holiday. He told The Sacramento Bee, “It has become degraded, particularly by college kids, and highly commercialized. It’s become a caricature. We have forgotten why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and it has become Drinko de Mayo.” He added, “We need to bring the history back and reclaim it as an authentic Latino holiday created by California Latinos during the Gold Rush.”
Hayes-Bautista pointed out that Mexico had abolished slavery in 1810, and Latinos in California backed President Abraham Lincoln against the Confederacy, asserting, “As the racial noose tightened in California leading up to the Civil War, this was a very scary time for mixed-race Latinos.”
Manuel Barajas, a professor and graduate program coordinator for the Sociology Department at California State University, Sacramento, added, “The way Mexicans saw it, there were a lot of indigenous communities fighting against colonial domination, and the army that defeated the French was composed of diverse indigenous people predominantly of Nahuatl background.”
Some of the college incidents that worry supporters of a traditional Cinco de Mayo include last year’s sit-in when the student-run coffeehouse at UC Davis advertised “Cinco de Drinko” on Facebook and fliers promoting Sacramento State baseball and UC Davis women’s lacrosse that depicted unflattering images of Mexicans.