Cinco de Mayo and the Battle for Historical Memory

Cinco de Mayo and the Battle for Historical Memory

The Southwest Political Report

By: The Editors of The Southwest Political Report

Outside of Puebla and surrounding areas Cinco de Mayo is not widely celebrated throughout Mexico. May 5th is widely and perhaps rightly regarded as a holiday primarily celebrated in the U.S. This may at first appear to be quite disheartening given how grotesque the celebrations here are.

With the current political climate, anger and disgust with Cinco de Mayo’s typical horrific parade of banditos, luchadores and drunken debauchery that people always seem to feel more comfortable to engage in when wearing someone else’s skin, is more than understandable. The impulse to pull away and give up on the holiday entirely resonates with so many of us and for perfectly obvious reasons.

 It should however be remembered that this day, this commemoration of a heroic victory, did not begin as the ultimate taco bowl debacle it has become.  On the first Cinco de Mayo of the so called Trump era it is worth revisiting just what Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates and why it took on its original significance in the Southwest and beyond to begin with.

The Battle of Puebla

In 1861 at the convention of London representatives for the British, French and Spanish government met with the intention of coordinating efforts to invade Mexico for the purposes of forcing payments upon debts accrued due to Mexico’s own internal conflicts. Benito Juarez the first Zapotec President of recently free Mexico had previously suspended payments to European powers infuriating the imperial governments of the so called “great powers.”

The French had further intentions than those of the British or the Spanish towards the colonization of  the whole of Mexico, Spain and Britain withdrew. Under the banner of the necessity of bringing a European Monarch to the head of the Mexican state and in pursuit of the vast material wealth of the country the French marched on Mexico towards the capital. 

At the battle of Puebla 6,000 French soldiers armed with some of the most modern artillery of the day engaged 2,000 poorly armed Mexican troops. When the dust and blood settled the Mexicans led by Ignacio Zaragoza emerged decisively victorious. The French would eventually reach Mexico City and establish Maximillian Hapsburg as Emperor of Mexico but the memory of the victory of Puebla would fuel the ensuing war to drive out the French imperialists and the reestablish Mexican sovereignty.  

That is what Cinco de Mayo is. Why it is celebrated in the US is rooted in US history just as deeply as it is rooted in Mexican history.

 Cinco de Mayo in the land that was once Mexico  

Long before today’s date devolved into a Mexifaced spectacle of disgrace led by the fraternities and dive bars of the United States of cultural degradation, Cinco de Mayo stood for something significant and heroic in the hearts and minds of a group of people not yet known as Mexican American or Chicano, a group of people born in Nueva Espana or Mexico but now living in a United States of America divided by Civil War.

According to the seminal work of David Hayes-Bautista, author of El Cinco De Mayo: An American Tradition, the very first commemoration of Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. took place in Los Angeles California in 1863. The speeches included not only passionate celebrations of the victory of Puebla, the necessity to support the war effort in Mexico but dire warnings of what a Confederate victory might mean to the people of former Mexico.

Junta Patriotica Mexicanas were organized throughout the Southwest in an efforts to raise funds for the Juarezista cause. In order to rally its membership the victory over the French was often and cited and in Hayes-Bautista’s words “thus a new public memory was born, Cinco de Mayo.”

This remained however a regional celebration and threatened to fade in the memory of the Americans of Mexican descent had it not been seized upon by the Chicano movement of the 60s and 70s.

Cinco de Mayo and its’ significance to Mexican Americans in the U.S. became more popular during the Chicano movement when those of Mexican descent were fighting for rights including better education, validation of their culture, and against police brutality.

Celebrating Cinco de Mayo appeals to those who wish to celebrate their culture without it being attached to a flag or nationalism that comes with celebrating an independence day. No doubt that the day has been appropriated and commercialized by beer companies and other corporate entities to make money.  This has long been the “American Way”. The bottom line is the dollar under capitalism. So what do we do now? It is enough to preach “conscious capitalism” when many already support business in their communities? It is enough when raids threaten our communities and babies are dying in immigration detention centers?

It is also easy to say don’t “dress up” as a culture that you are not apart of. While these things should be seen now as common held values-that you shouldn’t make a mockery of another culture-but given the recent wave of Mexican themed parties making the news lately and now with a hateful racist administration threatening us in more direct ways, we are a long way from not only not seeing these types of parties make the news while systemic racism is what this country was founded on and ruled by.

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo by celebrating the victories of the past, fighting the battles of today and preparing for the battles that lay ahead.



Picture courtesy of

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