Recommended Reading: Celebrating a Failure of Regime Change and Nation-Building

By Tom Prezelski

Cross-Posted from Rum, Romanism and Rebellion

Cinco_de_MayoWhen I started cross-posting here,
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.

0 responses to “Recommended Reading: Celebrating a Failure of Regime Change and Nation-Building

  1. Interesting. I always thought it was more popular among us gringos because Cinco De Mayo is easier to pronounce than Dieciseis de Septiembre.