Cinco de Mayo: Made in America

Mariachis, piñatas, tequila shots, ice-cold Coronas and Tecates, margaritas, guacamole, mustaches, ponchos, sombreros, and Taco Tuesdays! These are staples of what the American consciousness thinks about when they think about Cinco de Mayo. But what exactly is Cinco de Mayo about?

The club president and vice president of Santa Monica College's M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan) group Lily Och and Jose Medina weighed in on the state of Cinco de Mayo.

Medina, as well as many other interviewed, said that a lot of people have mistaken the holiday for Mexican Independence Day, which is on September 16, and predates Cinco de Mayo by 40 years. "It’s loaded with stereotypes, I’m not too happy with it, but I’m happy it’s at least being celebrated," said Medina.

Och said "Isn't it the Mexican Revolution?" in describing what she's heard from others. "Like today, Taco Bell was having free tacos in the morning," said Och.

Much like many other holidays, Cinco de Mayo has been appropriated by the consumer culture to justify partying, days off, sales, and well, mostly partying. What most don't know about Cinco de Mayo is that its roots not only tie to history, but are deeply rooted in both California history and the American Civil War.

History off the books

When most American public school students study the Civil War in history class, they learn about the North and the South and (incorrectly) that the war was fought over slavery. What history lessons don't often cover is the importance of Mexico and the French intervention during the Civil War.

UCLA professor of medicine Dr. David Hayes-Bautista did a presentation about his research into Cinco de Mayo at the La Señora Research Institute, which is a villa on the grounds originally owned by some of the original Mexican land owners of Santa Monica, the Marquez family. He was drawn to the history by chance as he researched dwindling poplulations in California Mexicans in the mid 19th century. “In the history books, Latinos disappear after 1848," said Bautista. "What were they dying of?”

He read the death and birth announcements in Spanish language papers of the time. "But in the columns around them, this whole story about Cinco de Mayo fell into my lap," said Bautista. "I wasn’t even looking for it.”

As many people are told in California, it was once Mexico. Prior to being annexed into the United States during the California Gold Rush, California, Utah, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas were all part of Mexico.

When California was adopted into the United States, the Californios were able to define a constitution that allowed women property rights, abolished slavery, allowed citizenship to all races, and required all important documents be made in both English and Spanish.

Once the United States went into the Civil War, the Californios put their support behind the North, as evidenced by periodicals of the times taking note of donations to the northern cause in publishings by Las Juntas Patrióticas de Señoras Mexicanas, a group Bautista considers one of "the first feminist groups in California."

It was during this time that Napoleon III of France, who was sympathetic towards the South during the Civil War, decided to move into Mexico to overthrow president Benito Juarez and install Maximilian I of Austria in what would become known as the French Intervention. Battle after battle, Mexico lost and the word spread throughout California of the impending occupation.

On May 5, 1862, the Mexican forces of 2,000 at Puebla were able to defeat 6,000 soldiers of the French army to score the first big victory against the invaders, delaying French occupation for over a year.

Again, word spread to California where American Mexicans celebrated the victory in traditional American revolutionary period garments and music, singing anthems in both English and Spanish.

In California, Cinco de Mayo continued to be celebrated every year. “Every cinco de mayo, they were basically making a public statement to the world, here is where we stand on the issues of the Civil War,” said Bautista.

Welcome to the melting pot

After the Civil War, the memory of the celebration stayed alive until the last families who were alive to see the war died at the turn of the 20th century. When the Mexican Revolution came, it brought more immigrants north into California.

"They arrived here, they saw the last of the Californios doing this thing on Cinco de Mayo," said Bautista. "They realized it was a good community organization event, [but they] had no idea why the Californios were celebrating it."

The immigrants imposed on Cinco de Mayo traditions they brought from their regions, like mariachis, evocations of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, and dancing adelitas.

“Those generations who had physically been there, even as children were dying off, and this stuff wasn’t in the history books, I mean you don’t learn this in California history," said Bautista. "We didn't know it began as a civil rights statement."

Relaying the message

Ernesto Marquez was born in 1924 in Santa Monica. His great, great, great grandfather Francisco Reyes was a soldier that came with an expedition to settle California for Spain. “We were here from the beginning,” said Marquez.

“There’s no evidence it was once Mexican and Spanish anymore,” said Marquez. He was unaware of his own ancestors' involvement in Cinco de Mayo until Bautista informed him of his research.

"Ernie only knew they celebrated because his grandpa said you had to," said Bautista. "It never got captured, it was never formalized, so it became a memory.”

Bautista pointed to the turn of the 20th century as a period that America tried to hide California's Mexican past.

“When Pasqual Marquez’s wife died he willed Canyon School to the LAUSD, he did so with the stipulation they celebrate Cinco de Mayo every year,” said Bautista. "His family was very involved in the creation of Cinco de Mayo as a public event, yet even in his own family that history had gotten lost.”

Four years ago with the release of his book, "El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition," Bautista began working on a play with Ballet Folklorico Flor de Mayo, led by director and SMC dance instructor Raquel Ramirez.

Their production includes music inspired by music from the Civil War period and the costumes are reproductions of clothing found in photos from the region during that period.

"All of the different things that happen in a country make the steps or the music change," said Ramirez. "Even though the music is a little bit different now or the steps have added to it, they're still the foundations that we've seen in the past."

Seira Greenwood is a student at UCLA and an SMC alumni who still does stage management for Global Motion on occasion. Being of Guatemalan descent in California has given her a unique view of Cinco de Mayo.

"I always heard 'this used to be Mexico' but never looked into it," said Greenwood. "I was like that’s not my culture, that’s not my history, but as an American, that is your culture, that is your history."

Ballet Folklorico Flor de Mayo put on a production of the play the weekend before Cinco de Mayo at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Downtown Los Angeles, next to Plaza Olvera. Ximena Martin, the senior curator of public programs at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes said that with events such as this "we get a chance to realize how important Latinos are to Los Angeles and California history. It’s an opportunity for families to learn about their culture and keep traditions alive through family.”

The president of the Palisades Historical Society Eric Dugdale was present at Bautista's lecture at the former Marquez estate, he said "A lot of us don’t know why the streets are named what they’re named or what’s gone on where we are. it’s important to be connected with where you live, you can love it more if you know it better."