To understand and honor the celebration of Cinco de Mayo, one must delve into the history of colonialism and the fight for justice and civil rights — not just in Mexico but especially here in the United States.
In a recent interview with the Washington Examiner, President Donald Trump questioned why many Americans don’t deeply examine the history of the Civil War. Therein lies a question we can only hope he also considers: What were the reasons and values behind the Civil War?
In 1862, México had spent over 50 years fighting after the initial call for independence from Spain on Sept. 16, 1810. Liberal and conservative forces continued to struggle over the power of church versus state. States were fighting over their right for self-governance, while France, England and Spain kept attempting to maintain colonial dominance over it and reposition themselves against the United States. France had invaded México for the second time, and in the state of Puebla, the Mexican forces led by Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin — born in what is now Goliad, Texas — fought against the French troops.
No one — not even the Mexicans — was expecting them to win over Napoleon III’s troops. The hopes were very slim for an army of mostly drafted men with no formal training and little experience.
At that time, we also had a Civil War in the United States. In California, the Latino population realized what was at stake. Until 1848, Latinos in California — about 7,500 at the time — had lived under the Mexican Constitution, which had outlawed slavery and declared that regardless of race, all Mexican citizens had the same rights. But “when California was conquered by a country that loudly proclaimed freedom for all but allowed slavery to exist, Latinos could not help but note the obvious discrepancy between word and deed, especially when their own civil rights were placed in question on the grounds of race,” writes Dr. David E. Hayes-Bautista in his book, “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition.”
The news of the Mexican underdog army winning against the French gave new strength to California Latinos, who had sought to stop the advances of the Confederacy and its notions of white supremacy.
A victory for Mexico on May 5, 1862, against Napoleon III meant that freedom and equality could win.
“Latinos celebrated the good news from Mexico parading through the streets of California and Nevada,” writes Hayes-Bautista, and thus started the holiday. The celebration of Cinco de Mayo continued to be preserved in this country by the Chicano and Latino civil right movements, while in Mexico it remained a smaller local commemoration and just a historical date.
To honor the meaning of Cinco de Mayo today, President Trump, Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas Legislature and the rest of us would do well in looking back to history and acknowledge the vital role that Latinos and immigrants have played in the social, cultural and economic development of this nation.
They should abandon the hateful rhetoric that has spurred an irrational fear of all immigrants, a rising incidence of racially motivated attacks, and an acceptance of ignorance and mockery towards minorities in our national discourse. Students at a Baylor University fraternity might find it difficult to see the offensiveness of their actions — dressing as maids and construction workers at a “Cinco De Drinko” party — when their own president categorized all Mexicans as”rapists” and “murderers.”
In Texas, the signing of Senate Bill 4 will further create an environment that terrorizes immigrants and disregards the fact that our nation was founded by those who were seeking asylum from persecution and violence. In the pursuit of drastic security measures that lack the most basic humanitarian compassion, we are breaking the bonds of trust among our communities and severing the ties of interdependence with our neighbors to the south.
The result of the Civil War teaches us that justice and freedom for all are worth defending — and that the fight for liberty might be long, but the cause will be just. Our elected officials should consider the lessons of history and stand on the right side of American values.
Gautier is a freelance writer, public speaker and translator in Cedar Park.