Cinco de Mayo: An often misunderstood holiday

Jose Ortega of Sacramento performs in 2009 with the Mariachi Mi Tierra band during a Cinco de Mayo celebration on J Street in midtown Sacramento.
Jose Ortega of Sacramento performs in 2009 with the Mariachi Mi Tierra band during a Cinco de Mayo celebration on J Street in midtown Sacramento. Sacramento Bee file

Bars and restaurants throughout Northern California will celebrate Cinco de Mayo on Tuesday with mariachis, sombreros and plenty of Mexican beer and tequila.

Most of the revelers will have no idea the 152-year-old holiday was created by California Latinos opposed to slavery and the Confederacy, said Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a scholar who literally wrote the book on Cinco de Mayo.

“People think it was imported from Mexico in the 1920s to celebrate Mexican independence, but it was created by Mexican Americans who supported freedom and racial equality during the American Civil War,” said 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.”

Cinco De Mayo commemorates the May 5, 1862, battle of Puebla de Los Angeles in east central Mexico, where a vastly outnumbered army of indigenous Mexicans defeated 6,000 better-equipped French troops, ultimately leading to the French withdrawal from Mexico in 1867. The Mexicans were led by Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, a Mexican general from Texas, said Carlos González Gutiérrez, Sacramento’s Mexican consul general, who will take the same post in Texas this month.

The holiday has been criticized by some Latino leaders and activists who see it as overly commercialized – a Mexican-themed version of St. Patrick’s Day that often plays on racial stereotypes. Last year, angry students staged a sit-in when the student-run coffeehouse at UC Davis promoted “Cinco de Drinko” on Facebook. The posting included a picture of four male students wearing sombreros trying to vault a chain-link fence while two female students dressed as U.S. Border Patrol agents smiled.

This year, controversy erupted again when fliers promoting Sacramento State baseball and UC Davis women’s lacrosse featured images playing off Cinco de Mayo that were attacked as stereotypical.

“It has become degraded, particularly by college kids, and highly commercialized,” Hayes-Bautista said. “It’s become a caricature. We have forgotten why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and it has become Drinko de Mayo.”

The holiday began as a civil rights commemoration over the issues at the heart of the American Civil War, he said, adding, “We need to bring the history back and reclaim it as an authentic Latino holiday created by California Latinos during the Gold Rush.”

Immigrants throughout California, Nevada and Oregon held spontaneous celebrations when they heard the news of the victory at Puebla, Hayes-Bautista said. Some of the first celebrations took place in Los Angeles and in the Gold Rush town of Columbia in Tuolumne County. Mexican immigrants feared the French planned to supply the American Confederacy.

Mexico had abolished slavery in 1810, and Latinos in California strongly supported President Abraham Lincoln and opposed the Confederacy, Hayes-Bautista said. “As the racial noose tightened in California leading up to the Civil War, this was a very scary time for mixed-race Latinos.”

The holiday represents a victory for indigenous Mexicans, said Manuel Barajas, a Mexican immigrant from Michoacán state who’s now a professor and graduate program coordinator for the Sociology Department at California State University, Sacramento. “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.”

Ten percent of the 110 million Mexicans in Mexico and the 900,000 people of Mexican origin in the 24 counties served by the consulate central in Northern California are indigenous, González Gutiérrez said. And nearly all Mexicans are mixed, or mestizo – a mix of indigenous and European ancestry. Mexico took Monday off to commemorate the Puebla victory, he said.

While many people in the Sacramento area will go to bars and restaurants Tuesday, Steven J. Ybarra said he plans to wear his Union Army hat to “celebrate the destruction of the American south during the Civil War.” Ybarra, a former professor of Chicano Studies at UC Davis, said the French and the English were both backing the Confederacy, and planned to ship supplies north. If the French had won at Puebla, the American Civil War might have gone differently, Ybarra said.

Not all local Cinco de Mayo celebrations revolve around drinking. Miguel Castillo helped organize Sunday’s free Fiesta en la Calle, which attracted 5,000 people – mostly families – to Southside Park to hear Mexican American bands and watch dance groups.

Castillo, who was born in Mexico City but has lived here for more than 40 years, said Fiesta en la Calle is a good alternative to alcohol-driven parties. “We should focus on what brings communities together – it’s more important to create a bridge between cultures,” he said.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072.

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