The significance of Cinco de Mayo

Dr. Mark Petersen, Contributing Writer

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History professor Dr. Mark Petersen has taught classes at UD on Latin American revolution, social justice, and history, which are part of the new Latin American studies concentration. (Photo by Anthony Garnier)

The first week of May is in full swing, and, for most faculty and students here at UD, that means exam preparations are underway. Many are also preparing to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. While most celebrants can quickly tell you the literal meaning of the holiday (May 5), many hold only vague ideas of the day’s deeper meaning.

The holiday commemorates a historic event (no, not independence — that’s celebrated on September 16): a battle between underdog Mexico and France in 1862. A closer look at why we celebrate that obscure confrontation shows us how history is rarely, if ever, a straightforward affair, but always a source of valuable lessons.

First, let’s look at what we are celebrating. On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army defeated French forces in a battle outside of Puebla (in central Mexico). Wait, Mexico fought a war against France? Yes: in 1861, the governments of Britain, France and Spain used their navies to force Mexico’s government to pay for debts and damages incurred by European citizens during a civil war that gripped the Latin American republic from 1857 to 1861 (often called “La Reforma”).  Mexico paid up, and Britain and Spain’s navies departed.

France, under Napoleon III, used the opportunity for geopolitical gain and invaded Mexico.  This was not the first time France had gone to war with Mexico (look up the Pastry War of 1836), yet this invasion was far more ambitious. The goal: overthrow Mexico’s republican government led by Liberal President Benito Juárez and establish a puppet imperial government with Archduke Maximilian of Austria at the helm.

Many Mexican conservatives — the losers of “La Reforma” — supported France’s actions as a means of overturning the Liberals’ victory and preventing reforms that threatened established interests and privileges, including those of the Catholic Church. With a divided country and bankrupt government, Mexico seemed easy pickings. That the Mexican army, in the name of national sovereignty, was able to provide a stumbling block to one of the world’s most powerful countries at the Battle of Puebla, then, was something worthy of consideration, if not celebration.

Well, sort of. In cliché fashion, May 5, 1862, was a case of winning the battle but losing the war.  Despite the defeat at Puebla, the French army ultimately achieved its goal and ousted Juárez later that year. Nonetheless, Puebla helped inspire continued Mexican resistance to the imperial government, a resistance that undermined Maximilian’s rule and led to the withdrawal of French forces beginning in 1866.

A year later, Mexican forces under Juárez deposed Maximilian and re-established republican government. The experience had a profound impact on Mexican history and society overall. While the Battle of Puebla enjoyed national commemoration in subsequent decades, in the 20th century it faded in importance and is today largely a regional holiday centered in Puebla itself.

If Cinco de Mayo is not actually a major holiday in Mexico, why do we in the United States celebrate it? The answer lies in the deeply intertwined history of the U.S. and Mexico.

Movement of peoples, goods, ideas and traditions both ways across the border has long shaped the history of the two neighbors. Immigrants to the U.S. from Mexico in the late 19th century likely brought the Cinco de Mayo celebration with them.  Subsequent waves of migration increased the size and range of the Mexican population in the U.S. During World War II, for example, thousands of Mexican workers entered the U.S. under the Bracero program, providing labor that was essential to the U.S. war effort.

Many Mexican communities and Mexican-American groups kept the Cinco de Mayo tradition going as a way to celebrate Mexican culture, heritage and pride in the U.S. While the Battle of Puebla is today largely unknown in the U.S., its commemoration enjoys widespread popularity.

Cinco de Mayo, then, shows us how holidays are occasions for celebration and also opportunities to reflect on how history continues to shape our present. This holiday is a testament to the important Mexican contributions — cultural, economic and political — to the American experience in past and present. What other lessons can be drawn from this holiday and these histories?

I encourage you to search for them and hope that this search continues well beyond the fifth of May.

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