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The History of Cinco de Mayo

from the May 5, 2021 Bulletin

Mexican history art and culture Chicanos/Latinx/Mexicanos

Bill Gallegos spent much of the 1960s and 1970 as a leader in the Chicano movement. Back in those years Chicanos were dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam and facing racist attacks and police brutality at home. They built a powerful movement against all that. In 1970, their anti-war/anti-racist protest the Chicano Moratorium brought 30,000 people onto the streets for a peaceful march met with teargas, clubs, and bullets. For activists in those years, Cinco de Mayo became a rallying cry for rights, resistance, and self-determination. We asked Bill, a co-editor of our México Solidarity Bulletin, to put those times and the Cinco de Mayo holiday in context.


Many people in the United States today see Cinco de Mayo as Mexican Independence Day, but it isn’t. What historical significance does the day have?


Bill Gallegos: Cinco de Mayo — May 5, 1862 — marks the date Mexican troops defeated the invading French army at the Battle of Puebla. After centuries of Spanish rule, México had declared its independence from Spain on September 16, 1810 — the official Independence Day — and threw off Spanish rule in 1821. Then here comes Napoleon III, emperor of France, looking to add México to the French colonial empire. He sent in over 5,000 troops from the world’s most powerful army. They landed in México and set out to march to the capitol of México City. Directly in their path: the city of Puebla, defended by 4,700 poorly armed troops, but commanded by lgnacio Zaragosa, a seasoned guerilla warfare strategist. The French troops charged against the heart of the Mexican defenses. The defenses held. The French lost 1,000 soldiers. The Mexicans only lost 85 men. The Battle of Puebla handed France its first military defeat in 50 years and left the whole world looking at México with new respect.


How did Cinco de Mayo become a rallying cry for the Chicano movement in the US?


Antonio Sanchez from Central Washington University explains that well in The Real Meaning of Cinco de Mayo. In the late 1960s, he notes, Chicano civil rights activists on college campuses throughout the Southwest and California “purposely adopted the Battle of Puebla and May 5 as their day to publicly celebrate” their proud heritage. For the first time, he adds, college campuses heard the cries of “Viva la raza, viva Cinco de Mayo!” That cry amounted to “a bold statement of self-determination” and “cultural allegiance with Mexico,” a “defiant recognition of the accomplishments of the capable Mestizo people of Aztlan.” A new and hopeful Chicano holiday had “emerged triumphantly” from the struggle for civil rights.


How was Cinco de Mayo used to build the Chicano movement?


Cinco de Mayo as a slogan and celebration proclaimed our national pride in full view of the greater US public and opened the door to a larger discussion of our history, including the real meaning of US annexation of México’s northern territories in 1848. People of Mexican/indigenous descent had lived on the lands now in Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and California for hundreds of years and had maintained a culture still rooted in indigenous practices and beliefs.


Our movement developed an analysis that this culture represented a new Chicano Nation, with a unique identity forged by a century of life in the United States under an oppressive racist system. Through this analysis, the Chicano struggle became integrally connected with struggles in México against Yanqui imperialism. We fought not just for equality with white Americans, but for Chicano sovereignty.


Cinco de Mayo is now recognized nationally, even on Hallmark calendars! Do you consider that a victory?


Unfortunately, US alcohol corporations have largely coopted this holiday. They market it as an occasion to get drunk and party, not to celebrate an anti-imperialist victory, much less to motivate the Chicano people’s ongoing struggle against racism and national oppression. They horribly disfigured the holiday into “Drinko for Cinco.” But we still do have authentic celebrations in some communities and college campuses. And we still need to insist that our true history be recognized and honored throughout the US educational system and in popular culture.


Have Chicano activists built solidarity with the people of México? 


Yes! Chicanos provided powerful support for the Zapatistas and, more recently, have given support to the Morena Party that swept to victories throughout México in 2018. The right of Chicanos to self-determination in the illegally annexed territories of Aztlan in the US Southwest and the right of México to exercise sovereignty free from US domination have been and will be two parts of the same struggle.


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