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Cinco de Mayo: Margaritas? Independence? Cultural Identity? It’s Complicated.

May 4, 2018 | By Elizabeth Arroyo

Learn about Cinco de Mayo and so much more in Chronicling America, the open-access database of historic newspapers created by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress!

What Was, and Is, Cinco de Mayo?

Many people see Cinco de Mayo—Spanish for “the Fifth of May”—as pretty much a big Mexican party with margaritas and beer. Those paying a little closer attention sometimes assume it’s Mexico’s independence day (which is actually September 16th). Actually, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla, when outnumbered Mexican fighters fended off French troops that had come to collect a war debt and install a French emperor.

The battle’s military impact was short-lived, but its cultural impact, particularly in the United States, was significant and lasting. In Mexico itself, ironically, the holiday is not a major celebration, except in Puebla. Mexicans sometimes express surprise when they see the size and popularity of U.S. celebrations, especially in areas with large Chicano populations. But here in the States the holiday has been boosted by a different cultural context.

It does hold an important place in Mexican history, to be sure. “The significance of Cinco de Mayo is that it represents Mexican resistance to foreign intervention; it is a moment where Mexico as a young nation rallied to defend itself,” Raúl Ramos, Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston, told NBCNews.com. “But it was not a struggle for independence. Instead it represented a struggle against imperialism.” Ramos added that Mexico had had strong regional differences, but “the Battle of Puebla helped the country coalesce around the idea of a unified Mexican identity.” In the United States, Cinco de Mayo would also strengthen a sense of identity for people of Mexican heritage.

How Did People Celebrate in the Early Years?

In the nineteenth century, newspapers across the country told their readers the history of the event and the ways it was being observed in Mexico. For example, on May 12, 1887, the Austin [Texas] Weekly Statesman told of a grand twenty-fifth anniversary celebration:

To-day was a gala day in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. …

Cinco de Mayo is looked upon by the descendants of Cartes [sic] and Montezuma as the most glorious day in the history of Mexico. …

In order to keep the victory that they achieved over the combined armies of France and Austria, they spend large sums of money in celebrating Cinco de Mayo. To-day Nuevo Laredo was dressed in her holiday attire; all the principal buildings were covered with bunting and national flags; and at night the main plaza was beautifully illuminated with Chinese lanterns, torches, etc. At eleven p.m., when we left, the whole plaza was one blaze of light—fifteen hundred lanterns throwing their mellow lights on thousands of beautiful ladies and gallant young men, as they promenaded along the boulevard to the sweet strains of music.

Distinguished men also gave speeches, including the American consul.

Such accounts were popular enough to appear in such far-flung publications as the Wheeling Sunday Register in West Virginia in 1885 and the St. Paul Daily Globe in Minnesota, which reported in the same year that in the City of Mexico, “Many thousand troops have been concentrated around the city in readiness for the Cinco de Mayo procession Tuesday, when the army which was to invade Guatemala will be reviewed by the president.”

Mexicans in the United States began celebrating the victory at Puebla in the 1860s, but the holiday didn’t become popular everywhere, all at once. The Arizona Sentinel noted in 1878 that “The ‘Cinco de Mayo’ was passed here without celebration by our Mexican residents”—though it’s suggestive that the writer found this worth noting.

But on the other hand, the Fort Worth [Texas] Daily Gazette tells us that in 1887, “The citizens of Benavides have been having a great time oyer [sic] their Cinco de Mayo celebration. It has been a very lively affair and as the large majority are Mexicans in this section they have enjoyed it hugely.” And the Daily Los Angeles Herald published an invitation to its general readership, three days before the Cinco de Mayo of 1884: “Procure your tickets for the grand ball to be given by the young Spanish-Americans at Nadeau Hall on Monday evening, May 5th. Tickets for sale at Ouirado’s drug store, Downey Block.” In the interests of full disclosure, the paper “acknowledged having received “the compliment of a ticket to ‘El Cinco de Mayo’ ball.”

A Cultural Touchstone, North and South of the Border

In the decades after the Battle of Puebla, newspaper accounts of Mexicans and of Mexican immigrants and their descendants in the United States show the place of honor that Cinco de Mayo held in the culture. It was a reference that bestowed honor. Readers in St. Paul and in Highland County, Ohio, learned, “It is early discovered that the Mexican is very patriotic. He names his streets after his battles, as particularly the Cinco de Mayo.” A paper in Wheeling, West Virginia, reported that the United States Consul General in the City of Mexico occupied a “high building in Cinco de Mayo street.” The Delaware Ledger noted that a major “collegio—civil or state college of Monterey,” where “young men who show an aptitude for higher education … are graduated in the various professions,” was “domiciled in a fine edifice fronting the Cinco de Mayo Plaza.”

The Party Didn’t Start with Margaritas at TGI Friday’s

Those looking for stops on America’s road to embracing Cinco de Mayo as a national, let-it-all-hang-out party will see a clear signpost as far back as August 2, 1902, in the Bisbee [Arizona] Daily Review. The article recounts the adventures of white Americans no less mainstream than the fraternal order of the Elks diving into their take on Mexican culture, deploying it to spark a public revelry.

Self-designated as the Quien Sabe (Spanish for “Who Knows”) Club, delegations traveled by train from Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas to an Elks convention in Salt Lake, Utah, in luxurious Pullman cars. Stopping first in Denver, the “marching club” gave a parade immediately on arrival. The paper gave the following account:

The Quien Sabes are coming 100 strong, clad in pink ‘charro’ suits of finest Elk skin, trimmed in braid of gold and silver. No caballero in Manana land ever wore rich costume than [sic] one of these. El Capitan of the club will wear an outfit which cost $1,000 and at the convention will ride a saddle of Mexican workmanship of almost solid silver, which was obtained at a cost of $2,000. … At their headquarters in Salt Lake they will serve to visitors tequila punch, made in a Mexican ‘cazuela’ and stirred with the original prayer stick which Montezuma carried with him on the journey from Pecos Pueblo in northern New Mexico to the now capital city of the republic. This seductive potation will be handed around in the mugs of Mexican make. Four bales of chili pepper, and all kinds of commitants [sic] will be carried along and on arriving their ‘mozo’ will make great quantities of chili to serve to visitors. Tortillas and ahucate [aguacate (avocado)?] salads will also be served with the lunches.”

Cinco de Mayo Today

Jesús F. de la Teja, a history professor at Texas State University in San Marcos and former state historian of Texas, told NBCNews.com, “Communities adopt holidays to meet their social and sometimes their political needs, and I think that’s what happened with Cinco de Mayo. It was a way that Mexican immigrants could celebrate their ethnic background in the American context. It was a holiday all their own.”

Cinco de Mayo has evolved to take on additional meanings, as holidays have been known to do (see: Christmas). Bars, restaurants, and companies that sell beer or liquor do excellent business; de la Teja compares this process to what happens at events such as St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest.

Amidst the popularity and festivities, there has been much debate about how to give Cinco de Mayo its proper respect and acknowledge its history—for example, some say that news anchors should not wear a sombrero and adopt an accent as they discuss “Cinco de Drinko.” A crucial way to address the holiday’s present is to understand its past. For this and other topics in American history and culture, Chronicling America’s 12.5 million digital pages are a priceless resource!