The Wall Street Journal recently published an article written by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau: Cinco de Mayo No Hecho in México, Actually. In the article they rightly noted that Cinco de Mayo is not celebrated all that much in Mexico outside of the State of Puebla. To quote Barlow and Nadeau, “Cinco de Mayo has no association with Mexican independence. It commemorates a battle on May 5, 1862, in which the Mexican army vanquished the well-equipped French forces of Napoleon III.” No new news there, although Barlow and Nadeau probably should have referred to “Mexican independence from Spain.”
But Barlow and Nadeau went on to say, “No one knows exactly why Hispanics in California began celebrating Cinco de Mayo at the end of the 1860s. Nor does anyone understand why, a century later, the Chicano movement picked it up as an expression of their demands for civil rights…” Well, Barlow and Nadeau sure didn’t ask for my opinion on the subject. I would have told them.
To understand the times back then better, here’s a summary of pertinent events. In 1861, the financially-troubled Mexican government suspended debt payments to foreign countries for two years. This did not go over well with Mexico’s major creditors: Spain, France and Britain. Napoleon III of France instigated a military intervention. Spain and Britain supported the idea until they realized France’s ulterior motive was to take over Mexico in its entirety. The celebrated “Cinco de Mayo” battle occurred on May 5, 1862, when approximately 4,500 poorly-equipped Mexican troops defeated 8,000 well-equipped French troops. A Mexican David defeated the French Goliath, helping to boost Mexican national pride and patriotism.
The clear victory of the Mexican forces that day only delayed the French takeover. French forces entered Mexico City in 1863. In 1864, France installed a puppet — Maximilian – as Emperor of Mexico. Maximilian threatened any Mexican captured in the war with immediate execution. Talk about zero rights for prisoners of war! In 1867, the Republicans of Mexico reclaimed their capital and executed Maximilian. To use a cliché, what goes around comes around.
Meanwhile, back in California, USA, a state which contained a significant number of citizens of Mexican birth and/or heritage. At least several years after immigrating to California, my paternal great-great grandmother Francisca Tejada de Orendain, donated a significant amount of money to aid the Mexican campaign against the French. Her daughter (my great-grandmother), Hipolita Orendain de Medina, helped to recruit Mexicans in California to return to their homeland and fight for the cause. At the time, Hipolita was only in her teens.
Hipolita’s scrapbook, letters and journal now reside with the California Historical Society in San Francisco. A few years ago, I paid to have those scrapbook, letters and journal entries in Spanish translated to English. I donated a copy of the results to the California Historical Society. The following is a scrapbook entry (written originally in Spanish) from José Montesinol to Hipolita.
What is it about your look, what is it about your smile, that attracts so many hearts? What magic and enchanting qualities does your breath have that awakens soldiers, wounded by deception and their abandonment of love for glory? What is it about you that livens the noble sentiments of philanthropic charity and patriotism in the souls of everyone who surrounds you? And what powerful influence do you exercise over those who look at you for the first time, as you conquer them, and then obey your requests as if they were irresistible commands? I know that your child-like, silvery voice, expressing your humanitarian charity, also stirs up patriotism; when only with your innocent candidness and your Spartan soul you obligate compatriots, residents of this soil, to help the valiant, wounded Mexicans that have fallen in the fields bloodied by France’s civilizing ferocity. I know that here, in the exterior, our young heroes lie dead in the middle of oblivion. But you have made the Mexican leaders proud and aware, so that they might prize those whose lives were lost because of their honor, valor, and abnegation. I have seen you arm the unfortunate ex-prisoners of the French, so that they might march and continue to defend their country; you push them …you lead them to the boats that put them on the path toward glory…and you smile like a patriot because you know that even a small group is a force that strengthens the loyal lines; but then you cry like a little girl because amongst those who depart, far from your side, there are loved ones who you will perhaps never seen again.
Who are you? Tell me______Are you a woman or a genius? ______You are an ideal being, with a patriotic heart; How is it, I ask, that the good of the country has been entrusted to the sacred temple of your care? Are you the priestess who harnesses energy, warmth, and civic virtues? I believe you must be because that is what I sense.
Vestial Aztec, who tends to and stokes the patriotic fire, I lay myself before your virtues and self-sacrifice; I adore you with unbridled enthusiasm.
September 27, 1865 San Francisco
I’m sure my great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother were not the only Mexican Californians loyal to their homeland back then. Once the French forces were kicked out of Mexico, is it any surprise that May 5, 1862 — a date that must have served as a patriotic rallying cry — would be celebrated by California’s Mexican community? Is it such a surprise that the Chicano movement a century later would have likened its David vs. Goliath situation to the famous Cinco de Mayo battle?
These facts come as no surprise to me.
Laurel Anne Hill (Author of the award-winning novel, “Heroes Arise”)
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