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A Kansas City Historian Explains the Origins of Cinco de Mayo Here’s What You Need to Know About How It Began and What It Means

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Above image credit: Some experts say Cinco de Mayo celebrations began in California. Pictured at the historic Avila House in 1953 are Miguel Garcia, Margarita Garcia, Virginia Henandez, and Beatrice Aguirre. (Herald-Examiner Collection | Los Angeles Public Library)
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2 minute read

The origins of Cinco de Mayo — literally translated as May 5 — have been buried over the years. 

Instead of a rich understanding of why today is celebrated in some regions of the United States and Mexico, the day has become widely known as a day to party. This was fueled, in part, by stereotypical marketing campaigns that gained steam in the 1980s, which boiled down the cultural holiday to tacos, Coronas and margaritas. 

That’s what Sandra Enriquez, an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, hopes to demystify for us.

Enriquez, a native of the borderland of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is a social historian and also the director of public history at UMKC. She focuses on Chicanx and urban history as well as social movements.

The following is her contribution to better understanding what Cinco de Mayo’s celebrations signify for Mexican American citizens and for Mexicanos everywhere.

This timeline, provided by Enriquez, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Prelude: The aftermath of the U.S.-Mexico War in 1848 and the Reform War (a civil war) forced Mexico to borrow money from Spain, France and Great Britain. After decades of political turmoil, Mexico was bankrupt and faced an economic crisis. To regain control of the country, President Benito Juárez suspended payments to the European countries. 

In late 1861, Spain, France and Great Britain sent military forces to Veracruz to demand Mexico pay its debt. Spain and Great Britain agreed to negotiate and retreated, but France had other plans. Napoleon III saw this as an opportunity to install a new regime in Mexico. The French military invaded Mexico and took control of several cities in early 1862. 

The Battle of Puebla: French troops arrived in Puebla on May 5, 1862 with certainty they would win the battle. The Mexican army, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, surprised and defeated French troops. This was an unlikely victory. At the time, France had one of the most powerful military forces in the world. French troops had better equipment and weapons and outnumbered the Mexican army. Although Mexico won La Batalla de Puebla (the Battle of Puebla), the French shortly thereafter captured Mexico City, and imposed Emperor Maximillian to rule Mexico.

U.S. holiday or Mexican holiday: According to David Hayes-Bautista, author of “Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” the holiday originated in Columbia, California, mere weeks after the Battle of Puebla. On May 27, 1862, news about the French army’s defeat in Puebla arrived in the mining town. Californio, Mexican and other Latinx miners who had immigrated to the state because of the Gold Rush broke out in celebration. They sang patriotic songs, delivered speeches, had toasts and even shot their guns to the air honoring the Mexican army’s victory. Following this spontaneous celebration, Latinx social and patriotic groups created the holiday. These organizations shaped the public memory of the Battle of Puebla as a representation of anti-imperialism, freedom and democracy. 

Cinco Celebrations Boom: By the 1930s and 1940s, Cinco de Mayo evolved into a celebration of Mexican American culture, ethnic solidarity and self-determination in the United States. In Kansas City, Cinco de Mayo celebrations have been taking place in the Westside since the 1920s. 

The corporatized Cinco de Mayo celebrations we know today emerged in the 1980s. As corporate interests have tapped into “the Latinx consumer market,” the holiday’s origin has been lost. While the beer and alcohol industries have turned Cinco de Mayo into a drinking holiday and as an opportunity to stereotype Mexican culture, communities across the U.S. continue to observe the day as a celebration of Mexican American identity and heritage.


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