(Note: the following is an excerpt from Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes, co-authored by this columnist with Adriana Almazan Lahl)
Cinco de Mayo is much more widely celebrated in the United States than in Mexico, where it is really only observed in Puebla. There, it is commemorated with military maneuvers reenacting the Battle of Puebla, a parade, and other festivities. Several theories and stories combine to explain the popularity of the Cinco de Mayo holiday in the United States, one that actually commemorates the Mexican victory against the French on May 5, 1862.
An Unlikely Mexican Victory
Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of a surprising victory, a secret alliance, and a battle that changed history in three countries on two continents. The French invasion of Mexico, known as the French Intervention (1862–1867), occurred concurrently with the American Civil War. With the United States divided and distracted by civil war, Napoleon saw an opportunity to expand French territories in North America, and with the pretext of collecting a debt owed by previous administrations, sent his troops to remove Mexican president Benito Juarez from power and in his place install his cousin Prince Maximilian of Austria as ruler. But, as the French Army marched across the country from the port of Vera Cruz, they first had to pass through the city of Puebla, defended by a ragtag, poorly equipped Mexican Army.
The Mexicans fought back and were victorious against what at the time was the mightiest army in the world, one that had not seen defeat in over fifty years. The 8,000-strong French army attacked the Mexican army of four thousand just outside of Puebla and yet was decisively crushed. This was the last time a European military force invaded the Americas.
The Battle in Mexico That Changed the Outcome of the American Civil War
The Confederacy had appealed to Napoleon III for support, and there was talk of French recognition for the breakaway Southern states. According to some histori¬ans, the French had a plan that involved using Mexico as a base from which they could provide military support to the Confederacy. The Confederacy, having just won several impressive victories over the Union forces, was gaining ground at the very time that French forces were engaged by Mexico in the Battle of Puebla.
However, the defeat at Puebla on May 5 was a major setback for Napoleon, and while France’s forces regrouped and recovered, the Union army was able to gain momentum. Some contend that had the French won at Puebla the outcome of the American Civil War would have been much different, that the French and Confederates together could have taken control of the North American continent, from the Mason-Dixon Line to Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
Tipping the Scales: Mexican-Americans Write Anti-Slavery Laws into California Constitution
What is now the state of California was part of the Republic of Mexico when slavery was outlawed in that country in 1820, decades before it was abolished in the United States. As California prepared to enter the Union, the Latinos who helped write the California Constitution in 1849 were insistent that slavery be kept out of the state. California’s subsequent admission to the Union tipped the balance between free and slave-holding states, thwarting the original Union strategy to create a territory where slavery was legal all across the United States to the Pacific coast. If the French had been victorious on that Cinco de Mayo over 150 years ago, it is very possible that two treacherous allies, Napoleon and the Confederacy, would have been successful in their plans and much of North America to the Guatemalan border would have become slave-holding territories under French rule.
A Holiday Is Born in California
In his book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, David Hayes-Bautista, whose great-great grandfather fought in the Battle of Puebla, explores the roots of Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States and makes a little-known connection between the Civil War and the Battle of Puebla: “Cinco de Mayo does indeed mark a Mexican military victory over the invading French army on May 5, 1862, but it’s celebrated more in the United States because in 1862, U.S. Latinos of Mexican heritage parlayed the victory as a rallying cry that the Union could also win the Civil War.”
Looking at Mexican newspapers in California from 1862, Hayes-Bautista discovered that, for Mexican Americans on the West Coast, the American Civil War and Mexico’s war against the French were “basically look[ed] at [as] one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east and the other against the French in the south.” Mexicans were squarely against the French goal of returning their country, which had been under democratic rule for more than four decades, to a monarchy. He added,
In California and Oregon, the news [of the victory in Puebla] was interpreted as finally . . . the army of freedom and democracy [had] won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism. And the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues—defending freedom and democracy. Latinos were joining the Union army, Union cavalry, and Union navy.
Mexicans in Los Angeles were closely following the events of the invasion of France, taking place more than 2,000 miles away. If news was slow coming from Mexico, it was further delayed in reaching Los Angeles, as most of the Spanish-language newspapers were published in San Francisco and were delivered by stage¬coach—four days after being printed in the Bay Area. Hayes-Bautista describes this scene: as the stagecoach arrived on May 25 and the bundles of newspapers were thrown down to the anxious crowd, where they were ripped open and passed around. The crowd began to cheer as they read the combat reports published in La Voz de Mejico:
“Retirada de los Franceses. Viva Mejico! Viva la independencia! Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos! (The French retreat. Long live Mexico! Long live indepen¬dence! Long live the brave Mexican soldiers!)”
Filled with the excitement of the unlikely victory, Mexicans in Los Angeles decided to hold a local celebration to recognize their heroes and the triumph of freedom and democracy.
A David versus Goliath Victory and the Commercialization of Cinco de Mayo
Since then, the meaning of the holiday has shifted, specifically as Mexican immigrants flooded into the American Southwest following the Mexican Revolution. The connection to the American Civil War became lost as the day came to signify a David versus Goliath story really only known to Mexican immigrants. Later, Cinco de Mayo was used to political advantage to promote U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and, in the 1960s and 1970s, by the Chicano Power movement. More recently, a sort of fake holiday has been reinvented by beverage companies, who see a big commercial opportunity to penetrate the Latino market. “But if you ask people why they are celebrating, no one knows. And then you get some people who say it shouldn’t be celebrated at all because it’s a foreign holiday—and yet it’s as American a holiday as the Fourth of July,”6 concludes Hayes-Bautista.
Nothing says “BBQ” like a great Carne Asada. Barbeque flavor is determined by the marinade (adobo), the salsa, and the charcoal over which your steak is cooked. For real Mexican wood-smoked flavor, use mesquite or oak charcoal.
MEXICAN BBQ PARTY MENU
Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada
Side / Guarnición
Cowboy Beans / Frijoles Charros*
Salsa of choice*
Classic Baja Caesar Salad / Ensalada Cesar Clásica*
Tamarind Water / Agua de Tamarindo*
Peanut Marzapan / Mazapanes de Cacahuate*
* recipes available in Celebraciones Mexicanas: History, Traditions and Recipes
Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada I
¼ cup Worchestershire Sauce
2 tbsp Maggi Seasoning
Juice of 3 lemons
2 sprigs chopped cilantro
2 garlic cloves
¼ piece of white onion
8 oz beer
2 lbs flank steak
Combine all ingredients but the meat in a blender and mix until smooth. Place meat in a glass bowl, pour mixture over the meat, and drench every steak in the sauce. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest in refrigerator for 3 hours or overnight. Place steaks on a hot griddle or grill and cook for 3 minutes on each side, depending on how you prefer your meat done.
Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada II
2 lbs flank steak
½ cup lard
Mix steaks with lard, covering each steak completely; add coarse salt before you place on grill and cook for 3 minutes each side.
Grilled Steaks / Carne Asada III
Marinate meat with adobo sauce (see recipe) overnight if possible; if not, for at least 2 hours, salt steaks and cook over hot charcoal for 2-3 minutes per side. _