All About Cinco de Mayo
- By Jenna Maxwell
Cinco de Mayo: It's Probably NOT What You Think!
Cinco de Mayo, when translated into English literally means, the "Fifth of May." Even if you think you know what Cinco de Mayo is all about, chances are, you might be wrong. Most people are under the impression that Cinco de Mayo is a huge Mexican holiday that celebrates Mexican Independence Day. Have you ever wondered what all the real hoopla is surrounding this day of festive celebrating? Well, stay tuned, because we are about to clear the air about what has become one of the most beloved Latino celebrations in the United States.
Wait...what? Did you say that Cinco de Mayo was a celebration of the United States? Isn't Cinco de Mayo a Mexican holiday? Well...the answer is yes...and no. But we'll get to all of those specifics in a minute. First it's time for a little bit of a history lesson.
19th Century Mexico
To get to the beginning of the story of Cinco de Mayo, you have to go way back to the time of the wild, Wild West. At this time, California was still a part of Mexico, as it had not yet become a part of the United States. Historically, the nineteenth century would prove to be quite brutal for the country of Mexico. At this time in history, the territories of California and Mexico were filled with a virtual flurry of tumultuous activity.
In the early years of the 1800's, Mexico was in the midst of an ardent struggle to gain its independence from Spain. On September 16, 1810, Mexico officially declared its Independence. Mexican priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla loudly rang out the church bells and then gave a famous speech in which he exhorted the local people to "recover from the hated Spaniards the land stolen from your forefathers." A subsequent political revolt and a very long, drawn-out struggle resulted one that would last for many years before it was successful in the latter part of September 1821. Mexico's fought hard for its new constitution that stated that all slavery would be forever abolished and also that every person, regardless of race or creed could become a legal citizen of Mexico.
Back in the United States, another battle was brewing. The Confederacy was actively pursuing secession from the United States. Because of Eli Whitney's invention of the Cotton Gin, the separation of the seeds from the cotton bolls had become very easy, making growing cotton big business. Eli's simple invention led to the southern states having many very profitable plantations that grew only cotton, which was in huge demand. Prior to the invention of the Cotton Gin, the South had relied on harder to grow crops such as tobacco. Because of the Cotton Gin, growing cotton became easy, and this proved to be a huge boon to the southern economy. The southern states had come to rely not only on the growth of cotton, but upon the use of abundant cheap labor, i.e. slaves. Because the bottom line of the plantations relied heavily on the labor of slaves, the southern states would do just about anything to preserve the legality of slavery. Even if it meant the secession from the Union, or as the case would ultimately be, a Civil War.
The Confederacy continued to grow. Once Abraham Lincoln was elected to be the President of the United States, the Confederate States desire for secession and the creation of their own country became of utmost importance to them. "The Confederacy of the United States" created a new constitution for themselves that made slavery completely legal. By this time, however, fighting had already erupted between the Union and the Confederacy. The Civil War had begun.
So, what does all this have to do with California and Mexico? Everything. Part of what had the Confederacy so up in arms was the fact that California was trying to enter the Union as a free state. California becoming a free State was the last thing that the Confederacy wanted as it tipped the balance of slave vs. free states further in the Union's favor. Abraham Lincoln had firmly resolved to keep slavery out of all the new territories that desired statehood. This philosophy did not bode well with the Confederacy and further fueled their desire for secession and forming their own nation. The uncompromising differences between the northern and southern states ultimately were leading towards full-blown war.
Seven southern states seceded and formed a new country, which they called, "The Confederate States of America." The Union and its new President Lincoln refused to acknowledge the secession of the South or the supposed new country. They feared that setting a new precedent would cause a long-standing climate of embattled mini-countries constantly feuding over differences of opinion.
Many Latino people in the California/Mexico territory were justifiably nervous about the rapid growth and spread of the Confederacy. Remember, that Mexico had fought hard and valiantly for many years in order to be free from slavery and to be legal citizens of their country. For many Latinos, choosing which side of the Civil War to be on was a no-brainer. Mexicans wanted their country to remain free.
Meanwhile, back in Mexico...
Napoleon III, the monarch of France had designs of his own on Mexico. Seeing the strife that was going on everywhere in the United States, Napoleon thought that opportunity was knocking, and it was time for him to attack. Napoleon took advantage of the turmoil happening in the U.S. and sent over his troops into Mexico in an attempt to take over the government of Mexico. Interestingly enough, at this time Napoleon was also in cahoots with the Confederacy and had been offering his support to the Confederate Army. As far as Napoleon was concerned, it certainly would have helped his agenda tremendously were California to have become a slave territory.
May 5, 1862
The cost of many years of fighting and battling had taken a severe toll on the struggling country of Mexico. The financial reality and aftermath of the country's economy was now at best abysmal and monetarily Mexico was in virtual shambles. At this point, Mexico was in debt to many different countries. In an effort to salvage whatever he could and give Mexico a bit of a reprieve, Mexican President Benito Juarez declared that there would be a two-year suspension on any debt payments to be made to their debtors. This moratorium was hoped to help give the country a chance to heal and recover. This declaration, however, only fueled the fire that raged in Napoleon.
A very well outfitted French army of over 6000 troops arrived in Mexico late in the year 1861. As the French forces moved toward Mexico City, some very heavy resistance in a town called Puebla surprised the French troops. Although the somewhat scrappy Mexican fighters were grossly outnumbered nearly two to one, somehow these Mexican forces were able to fight off the French army. They killed nearly 1000 French troops while the rest of the illustrious French army immediately went into full retreat. The Mexican army was rallied and exhilarated by their decisive victory in Puebla. The date of this famous victorious battle was May 5, 1862. Cinco de Mayo would always go down in history as an event that symbolized Mexican unity, pride, and patriotism.
Because of the Mexican victory at Puebla, many very important things subsequently occurred. First of all, the Mexican army got a much-needed boost by driving out the legendary French army on that historic fifth day of May. Mexican spirits were buoyed as the word of the unlikely victory spread throughout the territory. The burgeoning United States also likely reaped a few benefits from the events of Cinco de Mayo. The victorious battle may have helped prevent the French from immediately siding up with the Confederacy and offering some big assistance to their efforts in the ongoing Civil War. Had this turn of events occurred, the outcome of the Civil War might have been decidedly different than it is written in our history books. Lastly, since the legendary battle in Puebla, no European military force has ever again invaded a country in North America.
Early Cinco de Mayo Celebrations
In 1862, as the word of the Cinco de Mayo victory began to spread, many joyful celebrations were held throughout the California-Mexico territory. Spanish newspapers printed stories telling of the heroic events that occurred at Puebla. As the tale began to be told--and then retold--many were positively jubilant over the news of the electrifying defeat of the French Army. During this particular time in history, California was filled with Mexican miners that were part of the California Gold Rush. Once the word made its way into the gold country, many of these Latino prospectors got very excited. The miners shot off their rifles, sang songs of patriotism and wildly celebrated the very exciting news. In these organically joyful moments of history, it seems that a new beloved holiday had begun.
Since 1863, Cinco de Mayo has been marked and celebrated in California and has subsequently spread to being marked in other parts of the United States. Ironically and contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not a very big holiday in the country of Mexico itself. Puebla, Mexico is known to have some very lively Cinco de Mayo celebrating, but outside of Puebla, Mexico is fairly quiet when it comes to Cinco de Mayo, in general. Cinco de Mayo is not an official national holiday in Mexico, either.
In the United States, in certain parts of the country, Cinco de Mayo is a time of great revelry and festive celebration. This is particularly true in the cities that are heavily populated with Mexican-Americans, such as Los Angeles. Cinco de Mayo is a great time for Latinos to celebrate and take pride in their heritage as they remember the historic battle that took place on that important day in history.
Modern Day Cinco de Mayo Celebrations
Arizona- Several large cities in Arizona host Cinco de Mayo events. During the festivities, you can find Chihuahua races, parades, fabulous food and great Mexican entertainment.
Chicago- Do you think that mid-westerners don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Well, think again. Chicagoans celebrate Cinco de Mayo with a heavy dosing of true western flair! Adult celebrants can get into the true spirit of the fiesta with the annual Cinco de Mayo Pub Crawl. Family style Cinco de Mayo fun is easy to find by attending the big parade on Sacramento Drive or at many of the local Mexican restaurants that offer up Cinco de Mayo specials.
Denver- The people of Denver love to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and embrace their annual "Celebrate Culture" event that is held in honor of Cinco de Mayo every year. Expect to find all sorts of events celebrating Latino culture, from chili cook-offs to Chihuahua races.
Los Angeles- The world's largest Cinco de Mayo celebration takes place annually in the city of Los Angeles. The annual "Fiesta Broadway" will host over 300,000 Cinco de Mayo revelers with traditional Mexican food, dancing, entertainment and parades.
Minnesota- Yes, we said Minnesota. Believe it or not, St. Paul, Minnesota's District Del Sol hosts one of the United States most exciting Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Participants can enjoy a low-rider car show, a lively parade, a 5k race and a plethora of Mexican style entertainment.
New York- Central Park will come alive on Cinco de Mayo with Mariachi music, Mexican style folk dancers and a colorful parade to boot. Clearly you do not have to be on the west coast to enjoy this traditional Latino holiday.
San Francisco- For San Franciscan's, Dolores Park is the place to be for Cinco de Mayo festivities. Over 10,000 participants will gather to enjoy Mexican fare, entertainment and family friendly activities. This celebration is alcohol-free, so if you are local, take the kids and expect to have a great time!
Texas- When it comes to celebrations with a true south of the border flavor, look no further than the great state of Texas. Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Texas are filled with plenty of Tex-Mex style food, margaritas, parades and lots of authentic Mexican folk dancing.
How To Celebrate Cinco de Mayo
No matter where you live, getting into the spirit of Cinco de Mayo is easy and fun! Here are a few tips to help you plan a super simple Cinco de Mayo fiesta of your very own.
Seven Layer Dip:
Cinco de Mayo is a cultural celebration that is steeped in the pride of Mexico and Mexican Americans. It also gives each of us the perfect opportunity to embrace the excitement of Mexican culture and all it has to offer including, delicious food, fare, drink, and festivities. Cinco de Mayo means brightly colored dresses, authentic western clothing, Mariachi musicians, parades, dancing and much, much more. And you thought that this was just going to be the fifth day of May? Hardly. Cinco de Mayo is the party of all parties and a truly festive day in every sense of the word. A celebration that offers the chance to kick up your heels and honor Mexican heritage and pride, Cinco de Mayo is a holiday you don't want to miss!
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