The sense of shared identity that binds an immigrant group together in its adopted home is no mere transplanting of old-country customs. It involves creativity and innovation—and a dual process of celebrating ancestral ties while affirming group emergence into the fabric of life in the new country.
Calabrians, Sicilians, Tuscans, Abruzzians and other immigrants from the Italian Peninsula began to draw together in the late-19th-century U.S., just when a unified ‘Italy’ was being born. Columbus Day, Oct. 12 (also, later, ‘Día de la Raza’ or ‘Day of the Hispanic/Latino People’) grew by the 20th century into an Italian-American affirmation. For the Irish, whose history of mass immigration here is a half-century older, St. Patrick’s (St. Paddy’s) Day plays a similar role, as has Oktoberfest for German-Americans.
So, curious Americans’ periodic discovery that Cinco de Mayo –the Fifth of May—isn’t the ‘real’ Mexican national holiday (that would be Independence Day, Sep. 16), somewhat misses the point of the day: the affirmation of Mexicanness in a new land.
It commemorates not Mexico’s winning of independence from Spain (1821) but a more complex historical moment: Liberals’ 1862 military victory in the Battle of Puebla over French invaders and their Conservative allies. Starting in the mid-1840s, Mexico was wracked by a sequence of horrors unimaginable to most Americans—half of national territory lost in the U.S.-Mexican War; prolonged civil war triggered by the Liberals’ (most famously Benito Juárez’s) anti-clerical, anti-aristocratic reforms; a British-French-Spanish triple invasion, ostensibly to collect debts from a land bled dry by war; and finally a full-blown French occupation in alliance with the civil war’s defeated Conservatives.
The Mexican triumph at Puebla, against a superior French force double in size, forms an imperfect and contradictory part of the larger historical story. Ironies abound in its celebration. For one thing, after Puebla the French actually prevailed, ruling Mexico for three years. Also, a key figure at Puebla, young Gen. Porfirio Díaz, later became a dictatorial president whose endless, corrupt reelections eventually triggered the Mexican Revolution.
There are more ironies: the French had long dreamed of achieving footholds in former Spanish America. In the 1830s, geographer Michel Chevalier coined the term ‘Latin America’—a completely novel invention designed to make France’s ambitions in the Americas sound natural and logical. It caught on among many newly-independent Mexicans, Argentines, Chileans, etc., eagerly seeking identities separate from Spain. Moreover, the ruler Napoleon III sent to take the Mexican throne, Maximilian, was a naïve and ill-starred monarch who proved too liberal for the Conservatives, and awkwardly solicitous of Indian and mestizo peasants’ rights. Eventually executed, he and his wife (haunted by madness during her widowhood) became tragic, romantic figures with a contradictory place in Mexican memory.
So Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico’s national holiday, not the commemoration of independence from Spain, nor of definitive victory against the French. But Puebla preserves the memory of an unexpected victory after a generation of endless invasion, war, and loss. As such, it has become a forum for expression of the new and continually evolving ways of being, and proudly feeling, Mexican in the United States—as well as an opportunity, partly superficial and commercial to be sure, for Americans to interact with Mexican culture. Literally hundreds of local celebrations across the U.S. mark the day.
In an era when Mexico’s sons and daughters here face twin scourges of economic crisis and political vulnerability unlike any in living memory , it’s possible that Cinco de Mayo has never been quite as important as it is today.
Pablo Julián Davis
Pablo J. Davis, Ph.D., CT, received his graduate training in Latin American History at Columbia and Johns Hopkins Universities and a Certificate from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is Principal and Owner of Interfluency Translation+Culture, delivering seamless, world-class translation and interpreting to the legal community and other professions, as well as cultural awareness training.