Today is Cinco de Mayo, which represents the anniversary of Mexico’s victory against the French forces of Napoleon III at the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862. (Contrary to popular belief, the date is not Mexican Independence day, which is celebrated on September 16). President Benito Juárez had canceled its debts with European countries, incending France and causing them to invade. Although the Mexican army, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, was outnumbered, they won after the day-long fight. Many of its members were Indigenous Mexicans from various backgrounds who united in solidarity against a common enemy (History).
But this wasn’t just a fight about money. Some scholars believe that the French were looking to invade Mexico and set up a base to support the Confederate South, which was in the midst of fighting the Civil War. The North had stopped exporting cotton to France during this time, forcing textile manufacturers to lay off workers. France saw an opportunity to forge a new alliance, helping the South maintain the institution of slavery in exchange for cotton (Remezcla). If Mexico had lost that battle, France could have colonized Mexico and potentially influenced the outcome of the Civil War (wbur). The French did gain control of Mexico City a year later, but the North had an advantage (Remezcla).
• Donate to a mutual aid network in your community, particularly one that supports the Mexican community. Here is a list of mutual aid by state, but do your own research, too!
• If you choose to participate in the Americanized version of the holiday, shop from Mexican-owned restaurants and businesses.
• Shop Latinx has a curated selection of goods.
• Don’t practice cultural appropriation – today or any day.
• Reflect on what solidarity means to you: How can you practice solidarity more authentically? Who in your community is modeling solidarity?
During that time, Mexican American activists in the U.S. celebrated the victory, recognizing the potential ramifications. But the holiday of Cinco de May in the U.S. didn’t go mainstream until the 1960s. Chicano civil rights activists, noting the solidarity represented in the historical event, revived the celebrations as a mark of pride and recognition of what we can achieve together (wbur). By the 1980s, brands had co-opted the celebration to capture revenue from the growing Latine audience historically overlooked (NYTimes). And, making the holiday mainstream offered brands – particularly alcoholic ones – to commercialize a cultural reason for everyone to drink in early May. The date is now one of the biggest days for beer sales in the U.S. each year (NPR). Meanwhile, in Mexico, observing the battle’s anniversary only happens in Puebla, where it occurred (wbur).
Much of the practices related to Cinco de Mayo don’t truly honor Mexican culture and history. This date is rife with cultural appropriation – fake sombreros and mustaches, insensitive costumes, made-up Spanish words, decorations that reflect Dia de los Muertos, etc. But avoiding appropriation isn’t enough. Today should also celebrate the importance of solidarity and resistance, which protects our unique cultural identities.
And in these times, solidarity couldn’t be more urgent. The national debate over immigration and racist comments by former President Trump has led to hate crimes against the Latine community increasing steadily since the 1990s, peaking in 2019 (NBC News). Latine Americans are 3x more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 than white Americans (CDC). And the number of people crossing the border from Mexico has remained at a 21-year high over the past few months (Pew Research). U.S. authorities took 172,331 migrants into custody in March, including over 17,000 children and teens without their parents (Washington Post).
There’s nothing wrong with getting some tacos and a drink after work today – without appropriation and socially distanced. But if you’re going to participate, consider that this day represents far more. To truly honor it, recognize the depth of its history, and stand in solidarity for our collective liberation.
• Cinco de Mayo represents the anniversary of Mexico’s victory against the French forces of Napoleon III at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
• The defeat of Napoleon III’s troops was a strong statement against colonialism and prevented the French from being more involved in the U.S. Civil War.
• This holiday has been commercialized and Americanized, obscuring its true historical significance.
• Honor today by standing in solidarity and respecting Mexican and Latine culture.