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Ask people what Cinco de Mayo is all about, and you'll get varied responses - an excuse to throw a party, a time to drink lots of Margaritas, a celebration of things Mexican, and Mexican-American.  Some may be able to tell you that the date celebrates the victory of the Mexican Army over French forces in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.  But it's actually more--and deeper--than that, as discovered by University of California at Los Angeles professor David Hayes-Bautista.

May 5, 1862 - Both the U.S. and Mexico were in deep trouble.  In the U.S., the Civil War had been dragging on for nearly a year, far longer than either side had originally thought, and it was not going well for the Union.  Union forces and commanders in the spring of 1862 were almost wholly unsuccessful in attacking the South through the Shenandoah Valley (Stonewall Jackson is generally credited as the superior commander in this series of battles).  Further to the east, McClellan was gearing up his Peninsular Campaign, and ostensible assault on the Confederate capital of Richmond that began problematically and, by early June, had ground to a standstill.

All in all, the Confederates seemed to have the better commanders, and the initiative.  As a result, things were looking grim for the Union.  Given the forces involved, one can view the struggle as one of liberalism (the Union's fight for a Constitutionally-limited central government, an end to slavery, and generally, Enlightenment principles, as reflected in a newly-modernizing industrial economy) against conservatism (the Confederacy's fight for the rights of individual States, a paternalist social structure, and preservation of slavery and an agrarian economy).

In Mexico, things were hardly better.  The Mexicans had fought the Americans in Mexican-American War and, in 1862, had just finished fighting the Reform War.  The Reform War had likewise been a struggle of liberalism against conservatism, as the prevailing liberals had fought for a freer, more federalist form government, and limitations on the influence of the Church and military in government.  Conservative opponents, on the other hand, fought for a less free, centralist, even monarchical, government, with more traditional roles for Church and the military.

At the conclusion of the Reform War, the Mexican treasury was practically empty, and Mexico announced it would suspend debt payments to foreign creditors, including France.  France used this as a pretext to invade Mexico in late 1861, with the ultimate goal of creating the Second Mexican Empire.  (The French were undoubtedly still smarting from ceding to the United States the Louisiana Purchase in 1803).  French forces quickly pressed on towards Mexico City in 1862.

Thus, with Union, and their similar-in-philosophy Mexican counterparts both on their heels in early 1862, the Mexican Army's victory on May 5, 1862--Cinco de Mayo--took on great symbolic meaning

"The French goal was to eliminate democracy, and remember that Mexico had democracy only for 30 or 40 years at that point," he added. "Remember, Europe was ruled mostly by monarchs."
But the victory wasn't just noticed and celebrated in Mexico--it was noticed and celebrated in the United States, as well.
"I'm seeing how in the minds of the Spanish-reading public in California that 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," Hayes-Bautista said in an interview with CNN. . . . "In California and Oregon, the news was interpreted as finally that the army of freedom and democracy won a big one against the army of slavery and elitism. And the fact that those two armies had to meet in Mexico was immaterial because they were fighting for the same issues -- defending freedom and democracy. Latinos were joining the Union army, Union cavalry, Union navy. . . ."Latinos in California were reading about every single battle of the Civil War," he said. "They were very well-informed, and they were reading with a three-week delay of similarly detailed reports from Mexico. So by early May, the French were about 60 miles from Mexico City as some Latinos feared that the Civil War might be over."
In the United States, news of the victory was celebrated in Mexican-American communities up and down the West Coast, both during and immediately after the Civil War.  Cinco de Mayo is therefore a truly American celebration, with its roots in the American West.

Over time, the meaning of the holiday changed:

The meaning of the holiday changed over time, becoming a David versus Goliath tale among Mexican immigrants in the 1930s and embodying U.S.-Mexico unity during World War II and Chicano Power in the 1960s and 1970s, Hayes-Bautista said. In his book, he described Cinco de Mayo's "undeniable commercialization in the late 20th century, a fake holiday recently invented by beverage companies."
This is natural; the meaning of holidays, and celebrations, changes as societies change.  But next time someone asks you what Cinco de Mayo is all about, you can raise your Margarita, and state that "It's a celebration of freedom, not just of Mexico, but of the human spirit!  And it's a recognition that our neighbors to the south once fought for ideals that we were fighting for at the same time.  Here's to us, and to them!"
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