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Eiko Minami

Eiko Minami [profile]

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Cinco de Mayo

Eiko Minami
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Latin American Literature and Area Studies of Latin America


During the 2014 Golden Week holiday, the Cinco de Mayo festivals in Japan were held at 3 venues in Tokyo and Osaka.

What kind of festival is Cinco de Mayo? The website of a certain group describes it as follows: “Cinco de Mayo, which means ‘May 5th’ in Spanish, is a lively Mexican holiday.” The website uses the catchphrase “Enjoy authentic Mexican Food!”[1] Another website gives the following explanation: “Cinco de Mayo is a Latin-cultural festival which started in Mexico and has spread in America.” The website also states that “In America, Cinco de Mayo is a large-scale event which rivals Ireland’s Saint Patrick’s Day and the Chinese New Year.”[2] The events held in Japan featured live Mexican and Latin American music, live performances, food and drink. Now, what is the origin of Cinco de Mayo?

Origin of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo celebrates how the Mexican army led by General Ignacio Zaragoza defeated the invading forces sent to Mexico by Napoleon III in a battle fought near Puebla on May 5, 1862. The holiday has spread throughout the United States as a festive event featuring parades, music, dance shows, and Mexican food and drink. In particular, Cinco de Mayo is an overwhelmingly popular attraction in Los Angeles, a city where nearly half the population is Latino (immigrants and their descendants from Central/South America living in the United States, particularly immigrants whose native language is Spanish; the majority of Latinos are Mexican). Newspapers and television show images of city streets overflowing with celebrators.

Interestingly, although Mexico does hold some events to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Puebla, none of the festivals are nearly as lively as in America. In Mexico, the festival which has the streets lined with many stalls and plazas packed with people to enjoy live performances is Mexico’s Independence Day held on September 15 and 16.

Furthermore, a significant number of the Latinos celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the United States do not know the origin of the festival, or mistakenly believe that it is Mexico’s Independence Day.

The White House and Cinco de Mayo

The mistaken belief found in the United States that May 5 is Mexico’s Independence Day is more than just a simple assumption; indeed, the belief has been influenced by public statements such as speeches given at the White House.

The population of Latinos (prior to this name taking root, it was customary to use the term “Hispanics”) continues to increase with no signs of slowing down. According to the 2000 United States Census, Latinos composed 12.5% of the total population. This ratio reached 16.5% in 2010.[3] In view of such conditions, a Cinco de Mayo reception has been held at the White House almost every year since 2001. The reception is attended by foreign diplomats from Mexico and Latin America, prominent Latinos, and entertainers. Opening speeches given by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama included a brief explanation on the history of Cinco de Mayo, thus reinforcing the meaning of the festival. Although details of the speeches differ from year to year, the shared main points can be summarized as follows.[4]

“May 5 is a day which commemorates the Mexican army’s victory against European forces with greater numbers and military power. The courage of Mexicans who, despite being at a disadvantage, fought to protect freedom and independence bring pride to all Mexicans and Mexican-Americans (the phrase “all Latinos” has been used since Obama’s term). It is also an inspiration to all people who love freedom.”

Perhaps out of diplomatic consideration, President Obama’s speech at this year’s White House reception marked the first time that the “European forces” were specifically referred to the French army of Napoleon III. When focusing solely on the part of the fact that the Mexican army fought against European forces to protect the freedom and independence of the Mexican nation, it is little wonder that May 5 is mistakenly believed to be Mexico’s Independence Day.

Regarding the significance of the Cinco de Mayo festival, the reception at the White House promotes friendly relationships and cooperation between America and Mexico. It is also an opportunity to convey both inside and outside the Latino community the economic, political, cultural and military contributions made to American society by Mexican-Americans (all Latinos).

Cinco de Mayo started from Latinos in America

Still, why is Cinco de Mayo, a festival commemorating the victory of the Mexican army, celebrated mainly in America? In the White House speeches which I previously introduced, both Presidents Bush and Obama referenced the relationship with Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juarez (respective Presidents of America and Mexico in 1862.) Furthermore, Obama referred to the fact that General Zaragoza was born in what is now Texas. He also mentioned how the invading French forces did not retreat completely until several years after the Battle of Puebla and that America cooperated with counterstrikes by the Mexican army. It seems that the president himself was unsure of why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in America and was searching for reasons. Even so, the points raised above are still less than satisfactory.

Actually, a book clarifying this mystery was published in 2012: David E. Hayes-Bautista, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition. Hayes-Bautista surveyed articles from Spanish newspapers which were published in California during the gold rush. He discovered that Cinco de Mayo originated from a celebration held in California the year after the Battle of Puebla. The series of events leading to the birth of Cinco de Mayo are as follows.[5]

California is part of a broad region which Mexico ceded to America after losing the Mexican-American War (1846 to 1848). Many Mexicans lived in California. Furthermore, following the discovery of gold mines in California in 1848, there was an influx of people from Mexico and other Latin American countries, thus further increasing the number of Spanish speakers.

About a decade later in 1860, 7 southern states supporting slavery seceded from the Union following the election of President Abraham Lincoln, who was opposed to slavery. The American Civil War erupted the following year in 1861. Prior to America, a civil war (1857 to 1860) started in Mexico between liberals and conservatives over the 1857 Constitution drafted and promulgated by liberals. President Juarez of the liberals achieved victory at the end of 1860 and immediately sent an envoy to Lincoln. The two leaders confirmed their shared intention to maintain a democratic government and resist reactionary forces.

The majority of Mexicans in California (who would today be referred to as Latinos) were adverse to the status system of white superiority and hoped that the North would win the American Civil War. However, the North suffered a series of defeats at the beginning of the war, and the Mexicans were worried that their residence of California would also become a slavery state. At this time, newspapers announced how the Mexican army had defeated the invading forces of Napoleon III. Inspired by this breaking news, Latinos took action to support Lincoln in America and Juarez in Mexico. Through organized fundraising efforts and election campaigns, they worked tirelessly to support the creation of free nations. It was these Latinos who started the festival to commemorate victory at the Battle of Puebla.

Furthermore, upon receiving news of Mexico’s victory at the Battle of Puebla, Lincoln expressed his gratitude toward the Juarez administration for stopping the forces of Napoleon III, who had expressed cooperation with the Confederate States of America.

Not only does this background clarify the reason why Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in America, it also provides historical validity to how, on the day of the festival, the White House recognizes the contributions of Latinos to American society.

Conclusion: the Mexican film Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla

Until now, this article has focused on Cinco de Mayo in America. In closing, I would like to briefly introduce the film Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla (Cinco de Mayo: The Battle) produced by director Rafa Lara in 2013. Although not a single Latino appears in the film, it talks about the Battle of Puebla.

The film’s story revolves around the main character of General Ignacio Zaragoza. It is much more than simply a patriotic film which celebrates the achievements of a hero who protected his country. Instead, it portrays complicated details which have been trimmed from the simplified origin of Cinco de Mayo as told today. For example, the film depicted the internal conflict in Mexico continued after the civil war, Mexican conservatives were involved in the French army’s invasion, and some Mexican forces fought on the French side in the battle. The film also showed how soldiers brought from the French colony of Algeria fought on the front lines for the French army. Moreover, Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla showed how many people fighting on the front lines for the Mexican army were also forcibly conscripted.

The film also tells the story of a Mexican soldier named Juan, allowing viewers to experience Cinco de Mayo from the perspective of a soldier. Juan’s experience was completely different from that of the commanders’ and leaders’ who were far away from the battleground. A long fighting scene shows a series of assaults and retreats, as well as conditions at military headquarters. Furthermore, placed in extreme situations where he must kill or be killed, Juan takes someone’s life for the first time. The film portrays how Juan’s consciousness warps to the verge of insanity. The battle scene is punctuated by frequent shaking of the image, as well as painful graphic depictions of injury to soldiers fighting on both sides.

This portrayal has the effect that General Zaragoza is not the sole focus of the film, but also that soldier Juan is being introduced as the second main character. In other words, the film includes the perspective and feelings of a single soldier when depicting the Battle of Puebla, an event which is usually portrayed as a courageous and brilliant military campaign. As such, the film has the aspect of returning a historical event, akin to the inscription on a memorial, to the actual experience of a single human being.

The film Cinco de Mayo: La Batalla is scheduled to be released in Japan this fall.[6] It offers the chance for a vicarious experience of the Battle of Puebla in 1862, something I hope which will be of interest to everyone who enjoyed Latin music and Mexican food in May, as well as to those who are new to Cinco de Mayo.

  1. ^ Cinco de Mayo websitenew window
  2. ^ Cinco de Mayo Festival websitenew window
  3. ^ For results of the United States Census, refer to the United States Census Bureau websitenew window.
  4. ^ For speech drafts from each year, refer to the United States Government Printing Office websitenew window.
  5. ^ All historical information provided hereinafter is based on the writings of Hayes-Bautista. The Battle of Puebla as portrayed in this book is based on information from newspaper articles around the time of the battle. The book seeks to clarify how people who first began celebrating Cinco de Mayo perceived the battle. (David E. Hayes-Bautista, El Cinco de Mayo: An American tradition, University of California Press, Berkley, Los Angeles, London, 2012.).
  6. ^ Prior to public release in Japan, this film was shown at the 10th Latin Beat Film Festival in autumn 2013. The schedule for public release is based on information provided by operators of the film festival.
Eiko Minami
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Latin American Literature and Area Studies of Latin America
In 2011, Eiko Minami completed the Doctoral Program in the University of Tokyo, Komaba Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and obtained a Ph.D. with a dissertation on a Mexican poet, Xavier Villaurrutia. She also studied in the Graduate School of the National Autonomous University of Mexico from 2005 to 2006 and from 2008 to 2009.
Minami assumed her current position in 2012.
Her long-term research theme is examining modern Mexican poetry from the perspective of its relationship with modern history. However, her research has recently expanded to include Latinos in the United States of America, as well as the period of military dictatorships in South American countries.
Recently-published written works include a synopsis of Edmundo Paz Soldán’s novel Norte (in 105 Books Read Throughout the World, Ten-Books, 2013), and a translation and commentary on Nicanor Parra’s poems “Sermons and Homilies of the Christ of Elqui XXIV” and “The Imaginary Man” (in The Kanagawa University Review, Vol.77, March 2014).