When I think of Cinco de Mayo, I think of parties with margaritas, chips and queso, and sombreros. But what is this holiday really all about? I've always heard that we celebrate it more here in the States than in Mexico. For years I've been curious about why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, what it means, and who it's for, but I've never taken the time to figure it out. So, this year I finally did. The story takes us all the way back to the Aztecs and winds its way through time until today, telling us about Chicano heritage and patriotism along the way.
Battling the French
First things first, why the 5th of May? In the 1860s, Mexico was fighting against French occupation. Cinco de Mayo marks the day of a turning-point battle in this war. General Zaragoza led his troops to a surprising victory over the French who outnumbered them in Puebla de Los Angeles. This historic battle in 1862 spread feelings of hope and patriotism far past the little village where it was won, and has been credited with turning the tide of the entire war. However, in Mexico, Puebla de Los Angeles is virtually the only town where the battle is still celebrated, usually with parades, reenactments, and dancing.
To the States
Not long before their battles with the French, Mexico had suffered the loss of a huge portion of land in the American-Mexican war. This ancient Aztec piece of land, known as Atlan, is what we now consider to be the American southwest. Sadly, after the war, Atlan became known for the riches to be found in Silicon Valley, and indigenous people where put to work in hard jobs where they were underpaid. Under the governance of the United States they felt that they had lost their voice.
Then, Chicanos remaining in Atlan saw the triumph of the Mexican spirit over a larger and better supplied army in the Cinco de Mayo battle, and found great hope that their cause and culture would continue to carry on despite the struggles they were facing. Mexican patriotic groups that had been forming across Atlan began celebrating the holiday and remembering this triumph, first in Sonora, California in 1864, and up until the present day.
The Civil Rights Movement
However, as Mexicans integrated into American culture and gained certain freedoms and rights, these patriotic groups disbanded and their activism slowed. Cinco de Mayo was largely forgotten. That is, until the Civil Rights Movement really took off in the 1960s, a full century later. Young Chicano activists saw in this holiday what their great-grandparents had seen years before - a celebration of indigenous heritage, spirit, and power under foreign occupation. They gathered around Cinco de Mayo as a way to make their voices heard among the many who were calling for greater rights in a system that valued, and still values, few. These early celebrations included traditional folk dances, foods, and retellings of the battle at Puebla. They brought Chicanos together across the nation and pushed their voice to the forefront.
So, all this still begs the question, how did we get here? Today Cinco de Mayo hardly looks like a rallying cry for social justice in America, yet Mexicans in America are some of the most overtly oppressed people. In Atlan, where the Aztec ruled, their descendants are being abused. Children are separated from their parents, women have been sterilized, and thousands have gone without the basic necessities in concentration camps. If anything, we need the spirit of Cinco de Mayo more than ever, but even this celebration of Mexican victory over occupation has been occupied by commercial American culture. Even in writing this, a white voice is speaking in place of a brown one. So, how can we celebrate the holiday in a way that uplifts Chicanos and doesn't appropriate them?
It seems like fair trade always helps to answer a question like this. For me, I think that celebrating Cinco de Mayo in its truest form - one that supports increased rights for Mexicans and Chicanos is the way forward. We should be speaking with our Mexican immigrant and Chicano neighbors, learning from books written by Chicanos, and supporting art made by indigenous hands. At Lucia's, we offer a few products made by indigenous artisans in Mexico that can remind you of the spirit of Cinco de Mayo this year. Come in the shop or send us a message and ask to see the jewelry from Mexico. Here are a few photos below.