When I started cross-posting on Blog For Arizona, Mike Bryan suggested that, at some point, I plug the book that I am working on. I am not going to do that, except to say that this post arises from someone else’s good book on the subject that actually cites my work.
El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition by David E. Hayes-Bautista, which was published by the University of California Press last year, traces the origins of May 5th celebrations in the United States to 19th century California. We hear all the time that the day is in many ways a bigger deal north of the border than it is in Mexico, and the book goes a long way toward explaining why. The holiday has its roots in Civil War politics and what amounted to a shrewd public relations campaign that reminds us once again that, contrary to anything we hear from Tom Horne, the history of our two nations is inseparable.
First, one has to straighten out some well-circulated misconceptions about what Cinco de Mayo represents. It is not “Mexican Independence Day,” rather it is a celebration of the 1862 victory of a Mexican army over a French expeditionary force that had arrived, doubtless expecting to be greeted as liberators, 6 months before to intervene in an ongoing civil war. Far from ending the conflict, the French regrouped, recaptured Puebla a year later, and oversaw the installation of a Austrian nobleman, Maximilian, as Emperor of Mexico. The triumph of May 5th was merely the beginning of a long and drawn-out war.
After a number of reverses, Mexico’s elected President, Benito Juarez, retreated to the northern frontier, where his Republicans remained in control, established his capitol there, and oversaw a guerrilla war against the French-backed imperialists. He looked north for support, but the United States was tied up in its own internecine conflict, so even though Americans were sympathetic, they could give little help for the time being.
The exception would be California, where Juarez saw great potential. Not only was the state prosperous, but it was also home to thousands of Spanish-speaking people: natives and immigrants from Mexico and all over Latin America, who, it was believed, would be sympathetic with the cause of the Mexican Republic. Juarez had agents posted in San Francisco, where they raised money and did what they could to rally political support among Californians. They helped organize juntas patrioticas (patriotic societies) among the Spanish-Speaking community and supported sympathetic newspapers.
The juntas in San Francisco organized a formal Cinco de Mayo ball in San Francisco on May 5th, 1863, and several, smaller “spontaneous” celebrations occurred in other parts of the state. A rally in Los Angeles nearly erupted in violence when a group of rowdy French expatriates tried to disrupt the affair, but the festivities were generally successful. Speakers reminded the assembled that the United States was sympathetic to Juarez, and that the cause of the Union and the Mexican Republic were one and the same.
In the end, the Spanish-speaking community was united as never before, thousands of dollars were raised for Juarez (which was a lot of money back then), and political support for both the Mexican Republic and the Union were strengthened in California. Hundreds of Spanish speaking Californians joined the Union Army, thousands of Californian veterans joined the Republican army after the end of the Civil war, and Cinco de Mayo would continue to be celebrated, eventually spreading across the Southwest.
As for those Spanish-speaking Californians who joined the Union Army, they were organized into a unit called the Native California Cavalry. They were eventually posted to Arizona, where they got a chance to confront the Empire when a force of Maximilian’s partisans ventured across the border near what is now Lochiel. Some guy named Tom Prezelski has written about these guys in a book that has not been published yet.