The Battle of Puebla better known as the Battle of Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory of the Mexican Army and volunteers over the invading French in May 5, 1862 on the plain in front of Puebla, Mexico. The 4,000 Mexicans led by General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated a force twice its size that sought to conquer the country and install a second Mexican Empire.
The victory only forestalled the French conquest for a year, but allowed Mexican President Benito Juarez time to evacuate Mexico City and retreat as far north as El Paso del Norte later renamed Ciudad Juarez across the Rio Grand River from what became El Paso, Texas. The Juarez saga came to a close after the French abandoned Mexico in 1866 and Emperor Maximilian was captured and executed in 1867.
A University of California at Los Angeles study documents that just days after the Cinco de Mayo victory, citizens of Columbia, California in the Sierra Mountain foothills celebrated the victory. From the beginning, the event was mostly commemorated by Mexican expatriates, many as members of Zaragoza Halls named after General Zaragoza who, by the way, was born in Goliad, Texas in 1829.
That was the case in Pueblo, Colorado where I was invited to a Cinco de Mayo celebration at their Zaragoza Hall that also sought to maintain the Pueblo/Puebla relationship. It was in Pueblo, in 1972 that the Chicano Movement brought new meaning to Cinco de Mayo because it symbolized so much of the historical dynamics that had caused the community to become deeply involved in civil rights.
Something else began to happen that had not been part of Latino activists celebrations in the past. The non-Latino community began to participate in ways that were traditional to holiday events.
For example, by the second year (1973) businesses in Pueblo began to announce sales and specials as part of the week of festivities. By 1980 major Cinco de Mayo festivals were sponsored by the business community and people of every race, ethnicity and walks of life were enjoying the music, food and crafts offered at stages and vending booths.
In Denver, Cinco de Mayo made its splash with huge crowds along Santa Fe Drive. Since then, it has moved to the City Center Park.
In a sense, Cinco de Mayo as an American event, is a metaphor for a community in transition. It stands as part of two eras of Latino history.
To be sure, the Americanized Cinco de Mayo is the product of a Chicano Movement that saw it as a symbol of its civil rights struggle. Yet, as time has gone on, it has taken a life of its own and is bringing the community a step closer to the center of the American mainstream.
Many have decried the loss of message concerning history and justice as the celebration has become more like a “beer” festival. However, there is a message in that as well.
Instead of the stereotypical “Pancho,” we have the Mariachi with musical movements that express love and history and Cumbias, Rancheras and Salsa that move people in a different way. We have Mexican food that is a most important part of American Cusine and the brown face that has become a constant in American life.
Going to a Cinco de Mayo event is something that everybody does because it is interesting, fun and exciting. It is an event to be enjoyed because it is part of American culture at its finest.