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Reclaiming Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, is just around the corner. This year, let’s do more than celebrate it, let’s reclaim Cinco de Mayo. Refuse to let this holiday be hijacked by consumerism. We can reclaim it and we should because it’s not about margaritas, it’s about freedom.

We create holidays in order to remember the defining moments of an era. To acknowledge our failures, celebrate our achievements, and honor our ancestors. These special days invite us to reflect on the meaning and significance of history in our lives today.

Like Christmas, Easter, and St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo has been appropriated by commercial interests with the result that few who are celebrating know the true origin of this day. And for Californians, Cinco de Mayo has special significance. Here’s why.

The celebration of Cinco de Mayo originated with a Mexican community living and working in the gold mining towns of Sonora and Columbia, California, in the mid-1800s. While they worked the mines, French forces were sent by Napoleon Bonaparte to their native Mexico to collect on debts and then seize control of the country. After a year of upheaval, and outnumbered by their occupiers 2 to 1, Mexico defeated the French in the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862.

According to some historians, if Mexico hadn’t stood its ground in Puebla, France might have pushed North to aid the Confederacy in the midst of the American Civil War, and our nation’s history might look quite different today.* The Mexican people favored the Union, democratic rule, and the abolishment of slavery. Between 1864-67, the French returned and seized control of Mexico; but their reign was short-lived and the victory in Puebla became a symbol of resistance and freedom among the Mexican people in California. They brought the Cinco de Mayo holiday to life.

California was part of Mexico for more than a quarter of a century (1821 to 1848). During that period, the Mexican government opened California to land ownership and trade opportunities for people from foreign nations, and secularized the mission system. In the decades that followed, Mexico and America fought with each other, and fought together against others

In the 1900s, Cinco de Mayo took on increased significance in California due to the struggle for civil rights and the farm workers movement led by passionate community organizers including Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

In 2005, Cinco de Mayo was proclaimed a national holiday by the U.S. government. It is not, as some have mistakenly thought, the anniversary of Mexico’s “Cry for Independence” from Spain, which is celebrated on September 16th as Mexican Independence Day.

Today, Mexico is one of America’s most important global trading partners. Our population includes families whose Mexican heritage dates back generations. Our culture is rich in Mexican influences from ballet folklorico to mariachi music. For millions of people in California and across America, Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity to gain a sense of meaning and significance that comes with knowing our history…and celebrating it together.

*“El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” by David Hayes-Bautista, Professor, UCLA.

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