Cinco de Mayo is celebrated across the United States as a tradition of Mexican origin. And it is during late April and May that Mexican beer and tequila companies make a killing as hundreds of colorful events commemorate the 1862 victory of Mexican troops over the mighty French Army at the Battle of Puebla.
But in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is but one of a long series of festive events and victory commemorations throughout the year.
For decades, Mexicans, Mexican-Americans and non-Mexicans have tried to resolve the big question: why is Cinco de Mayo celebrated with much fanfare in the U.S., when in Mexico itself it is just another patriotic date without much contemporary relevance?
The answer was recently presented by a professor of medicine at UCLA, Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, who is also a scholar of "dynamics and processes of the health of the Latino population using both quantitative data sets and qualitative observations."
Behind Cinco de Mayo there lies a fascinating story, according to Hayes-Bautista, an amateur historian and director for the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture.
"Cinco de Mayo is a tradition dating from the Civil War" in the United States, Hayes-Bautista told The Huffington Post, adding that at the time, in Mexico there was no such celebration at all. "It was all created in this country, by Latinos who supported freedom and racial equality and who were opposed to slavery, supremacy and the exclusion by government."
On May 5, 1862, while Mexican troops were confronting and defeating a French expeditionary force in the Battle Puebla, the Civil War was raging in the U.S.
Caught between both conflicts, Mexicans in the United States incorporated news of the victory in Puebla to their own experience. Some of them had been living here since before the 1848 Guadalupe Hidalgo treaty ceded many northern states of Mexico to the U.S. Others were recent immigrants, who were seduced by the Gold Rush and American boomtimes.
For Hayes-Bautista his happy "discovery" was the product of chance. A demographer and epidemiologist, he was investigating what he dubs the "Latino Paradox" that seeks to address why Hispanics, despite having less income and education and meager access to health services, are both less prone to certain diseases and live on average five years longer than non-Latino whites.
"I was investigating the level of health of Latinos during the Gold Rush and the Civil War. This is where everything began. But there was no easy way to get that data; until 1880 there were no birth certificates, and until 1896 there were no death certificates," he said.
The professor turned then to Spanish language newspapers from the mid-19th century that served Latino communities in the U.S., since newspapers were responsible for announcements of any social occasion, like births, deaths, weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms and confirmations.
He says he was impressed by the high level of reporting in Latino newspapers on national and international events. And one of those events, which was followed with particular attention, was the French intervention in Mexico.
"The news of the Mexican victory over the French Army in Puebla were celebrated, not only immediately after it happened, but every year during the Civil War. That is the origin of why we celebrate the Cinco de Mayo," said Hayes-Bautista, author of the new book "The Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition," whose publication coincides with the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla.
For the professor, the equation is simple: "Latinos here supported [President Abraham] Lincoln. They supported freedom, and democracy. The French invaded Mexico to remove democracy, and to impose over Mexico a treaty with the Confederation," he explained.
The first record of the celebration came only three days after the military victory, in an article from a newspaper in Columbia, a town in northern California, reporting how Mexicans living in that region threw a big, long party as news came of the defeat of French troops in Puebla. The celebrations continued through the years into what now is considered a Mexican festivity.
Over time, said Hayes-Bautista, the event was celebrated with different nuances. It is now more commercial and lacks that patriotic zeal, the result of the sponsorship by the beverage industry, which has come to promote what became the "Drinko de Mayo." The historical memory, he said, has been lost through the generations, even though there have been times where the celebration recovered its original meaning, like in the '60s and '70s, with the Chicano Movement.
As part of the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, the Plaza of Culture and Arts in Los Angeles
will showcase "Cinco de Mayo: Latinos in California Respond to the Civil War," which explores the roots of this celebration in the Civil War. The show includes many of Hayes-Bautista's findings, like photos, notes, journals, minutes and letters testifying to his discovery.
The idea behind the center's exhibit, the professor said, is to reinforce the notion that the Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican tradition.
"It's a celebration of America," he said, "not a Mexican holiday."
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