This year we are prevented from celebrating Cinco de Mayo by the Coronavirus Crisis and yet the May 5th date continues to be as important as ever. Much of what the Latino community has accomplished in the last 60 years goes back to a concept and a spirit created by a historical moment that set aside the turmoil of war for what seems to be an eternal struggle of a people reaching for their destiny.
Cinco de Mayo is the date of a battle (May 5, 1862) that saw a Mexican citizen force meet and defeat units of an invading French army in the Valley of Puebla, a historically and culturally important city some 45 minutes east of Mexico City by car. The French army of the time was cast as a model of military power and prestige.
The defeat of that powerful force at the hands of Mexican irregular troops represented a moment of light in a dark historical period that saw the French successfully invade Mexico and install Maximilian of Hapsburg on an imperial throne. It took President Benito Juarez 5 long years (1862-67) to defeat and eliminate the intruders.
In time, Cinco de Mayo receded in importance and was celebrated mainly in Puebla where the battle occurred and by the Mexican military. Yet, inspiring was the idea of the defeat of a European power with its imperial imperial system around the world at the hands of those indigenous to American roots.
The main character of the Cinco de Mayo battle was General Ignacio Zaragoza, who the year before, had been Juarez’ Secretary of War and Navy and was in charge of the defense of Puebla. Zaragoza was an American before his birthplace became American.
He was born in what is today, Goliad, Texas near Corpus Christi on March 24, 1829. That is, he was born in Texas 7 years before it became a Republic and 16 years before it became part of the United States.
Ignacio Zaragoza was never too far from the American Latino historical stream as a number of cities and towns with Mexican immigrants celebrated Cinco de Mayo in their halls. This is how this somewhat of an American hero came to capture the imagination of the Chicanos.
On May 5, 1971 I was invited to a Zaragoza Hall in Pueblo, Colorado for dinner and celebration. Like many other Chicanos before me, I was attracted to the person and the Cinco de Mayo Story.
That attraction led to the development the following year of a Cinco de Mayo celebration led and sponsored by a committee representing 108 organizations in Southern Colorado.
That year, 1972, the Chicano community put on a week of activities culminating with the attendance of 25,000 people at Zapata Park and a dance at the Colorado State Fair facilities featuring Al Hurricane Sanchez and his band.
The calendar began with a pancake breakfast on Sunday morning on a closed off street in downtown Pueblo, followed by week of activities that included radio talk shows about Cinco de Mayo history and its meaning, plays and seminars at the state university, a parade and a march.
This year’s Cinco de Mayo can be a reminder that it does not have to be a beer festival to matter. Cinco de Mayo in the United States was born out of an idea that the mirror of history, culture and identity was not buried but forms an active part of the future that community is building.