Cinco de Mayo began in California - let's celebrate together
On Saturday, La Luz is celebrating Cinco de Mayo and we should all be there. What the day commemorates touches everyone.
Cinco de Mayo is often confused with Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16) and is thought of as a Mexican holiday that has migrated north. But it actually began in California almost 150 years ago, and the Mexican victory it celebrates had a profound effect on American history.
On May 5, 1862, in the Battle of Puebla, an invading force of battle-hardened French troops were soundly defeated by a ragtag Mexican army that they had sadly underestimated. The French regrouped and eventually succeeded in taking Mexico City and installing a puppet "emperor" there, Archduke Maximilian of Austria. But the defeat of the French at Puebla set the tone for the Mexican resistance that ultimately forced them out of the country.
The U.S. Civil War had also begun, of course, with the outcome very much in doubt. But for four important years, the Mexican resistance largely blocked the French from supplying the Confederacy with arms and materiel across the Rio Grande.
Under Napoleon III, France was building an empire. He had already seized much of North Africa and Southeast Asia. With Mexico as a base, he planned to bring Central America and the U.S. South also under his control.
Had that happened, this country would be very different today. But it didn't. Throughout the two wars, President Abraham Lincoln and Mexican President Benito Juarez, whose government moved with the resistance, kept in touch as best they could. Both understood their importance to each other. As ambassador to Juarez, Lincoln sent the one U.S. senator who had voted against the Mexican-American War.
Lincoln's commanding general, Ulysses Grant, had served in that war as a young officer, and it had burned into his soul. In his memoirs, Grant described the war as fundamentally unjust and said that by expanding Southern slavery it led directly to the Civil War.
In 1866, at the end of the war, Grant sent 50,000 troops to the Mexican border in a show of strength against the French. The Union soldiers laid 30,000 muskets along the banks of the Rio Grande. Juarez's troops picked them up and drove the French out of Mexico.
Back in 1862, Mexican miners in California, hearing the news of the victory at Puebla, celebrated with fireworks, speeches, and patriotic songs. The first Cinco de Mayo celebration followed here in 1863. The day has been celebrated in California ever since and now has spread across the whole United States.
It is a holiday unique in America and uniquely American. At a time when some in this country would like to see us at odds, instead let us celebrate it joyfully together.
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Dave Ransom lives in Sonoma and is a retired journalist and amateur historian.