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Born in the U.S.A.: The American origins of Cinco de Mayo


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By: Ricardo Vazquez, UCLA

May 2, 2012 - In the process of extracting Latino demographic data from nearly a dozen Spanish-language newspapers published in California since the 1850s, UCLA professor David Hayes-Bautista stumbled upon the answer to a question that for years had puzzled scholars and amateur historians alike: Why is Cinco de Mayo — a holiday commemorating the Mexican victory over the French at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862 — so widely celebrated in California and the United States, when it is scarcely observed in Mexico?

As Hayes-Bautista explains in "El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition" (University of California Press), his new book on the origins of the holiday, which publishes May 5, Cinco de Mayo isn't Mexican at all.

Rather, it is an American holiday, rooted in the Civil War era and commemorated today because a network of Latino groups in California known as the juntas patrióticas mejicanas (Mexican patriotic assemblies) deliberately created a public memory of it.

Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine who directs UCLA's Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, expects that his new book will put an end to some of the popular misconceptions about the origins of Cinco de Mayo.

"We have had a lot of conjecture, a lot of guessing, but no one actually really knew," he said. "Now we know why it's celebrated."

His book also couldn't be more timely, as it comes when the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla is being celebrated in both the United States and Mexico.

As a demographer and epidemiologist, Hayes-Bautista's original intention was to gather data about Latinos in California following the Gold Rush in 1848, but his eyes kept wandering toward the columns and news reports just inches away.

What he found there has reshaped our understanding not only of the Cinco de Mayo holiday, but of the presence and continuity of Latinos in California since 1848 and their involvement in the American Civil War.

In the early 1860s, with the Civil War raging to the east, French emperor Napoleon III was trying to topple Mexican President Benito Juarez, hoping to replace him with Austrian Duke Maximilian as king and, among other things, reintroduce slavery to Mexico.

The Mexican troops' unexpected victory against the French on May 5, 1862, galvanized the disparate and independent juntas patrióticas throughout California into forming a strong statewide network that, in addition to raising funds to support President Juarez's wartime efforts, encouraged official commemoration of the battle.

Hayes-Bautista traces the first spontaneous celebration of Cinco the Mayo to the small Gold Rush town of Columbia, in California's Central Valley. He also meticulously documents Latino involvement and participation in the Civil War. As he points out, the vast majority of Latinos in California saw the battles against the Confederacy in the U.S. and against French interventionist forces in Mexico as twin struggles for freedom and democracy.

In addition to the publication of "El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition," Hayes Bautista, the UCLA Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, and the David Geffen School of Medicine have partnered with La Plaza de la Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles to mount an exhibition within the museum that recounts the history of Cinco de Mayo. The exhibit, which runs from May 5 to 6, features photography, newspaper articles and objects of the period.

There will also be a recreation of the original Cinco de Mayo celebrations held during the Civil War, which will include period costumes, music and dance.

"It's going to be a wonder feast for the eyes and the ears," Hayes-Bautista said.

 

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