This was not an easy connection for me to accept, either, but some knowledgeable people say there is one.
Cinco de Mayo is related to the traditional celebration in Mexico of the Battle of Puebla, on May 5, 1862. According to this CNN story today, David Hayes-Bautista, a UCLA professor of medicine who has just published El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition and is also involved in an exhibit about this, studied Spanish-language newspapers in California that were published during the Civil War and found that “…in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California … they were basically looking at one war with two fronts, one against the Confederacy in the east and the other against the French in the south.”
I haven’t read the book yet – certainly the political and social situation was much more complex than is described in the above article – but it’s an interesting thought.
Mexico and the United States in the early 19th Century
Rather than say much about a topic I really know nothing about, I will just point to McPherson’s book about the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom (see side bar). It starts with the Mexican-American war, and in this context, McPherson brings up some interesting points.
While most people today are familiar with the fiery controversy over whether the new western territories should be slave states or free, it’s less well known that many Southerners also dreamed of extending their slave system southwards. Also, filibustering meant something very different back then.
The history is complex, and made more complicated by the slavery debate and subsequent war, but all this should be taken into account. Today, we have forgotten so much history, but such things as these everybody had lived through and had opinions about back in the day.
Whose Side Were Latinos on the 1860s?
The Civil War Society is quoted as mentioning Latino regiments such as the CS 33rd Texas Cavalry and noting that “Texans chose leaders from among the patriots who had formed the old Texas Republic, or who were descended from the lines of the Spanish Conquistadors.” Some Texans fought for the Union, though. Also linked to is a description of how the war tore up things locally in Texas, as well as mention of some other Latino Confederate troops.
California (the state population Hayes-Bautista researched) was more symmetrically divided than Texas, with Northern California tending to support the Union and Southern California swinging to the Confederacy, according to to this excellent in-depth article by the National Park Service, “Hispanics and the Civil War.”
The choice of which side to support was complicated for Latinos of the Southwest by a number of factors:
Slavery had been banned by the Mexican government and only a few dozen enslaved African Americans lived in the arid lands of west Texas and New Mexico. Many Hispanics opposed the idea of bringing the institution into their homeland and endorsed Union efforts to prevent it. Nevertheless, owners of crop lands in New Mexico-a group that included some wealthy Hispanics and Anglo Americans–often relied on the coerced labor of American Indians and shared some of the views of their slave-holding counterparts in the South. Other Hispanics harbored bitter feelings toward the US government as a result of the Mexican War and demonstrated their disapproval by supporting the Confederacy. The political influence, trade connections, and geographic proximity of the South also drew many Hispanic ranchers and farmers closer to the movement to secede from the Union.
The more I learn about the Civil War, the more thankful I am not to have lived during those difficult times.
As for the proposed connection between Cinco de Mayo here in Los Estados Unidos and the celebration of the Battle of Puebla in Mexico (today, Popocatépetl Volcano is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the nearby battle in its own unique way), well, I am more inclined toward the NPS version. Everybody was split during those times, and I suspect it was the same for Latinos.
Still, it’s something to consider.
Categories: American Civil War