Decolonizing Our Cinco de Mayo Celebrations

Get to know the actual history of the Battle of Puebla and traditions to celebrate an Indigenous win

Dancers with Ballet Folklorico Baile Caliente perform on the Fiesta Colorado Folkorico Stage in Denver for the Cinco de Mayo celebrations. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)

As the vaccine rollout continues and Americans begin to poke their heads out of their homes and tiptoe back to socializing, it’s only natural to want to celebrate. And with Cinco de Mayo approaching, some might see it as an excuse to enjoy some festivities. Maybe your girlfriends invite you out for some tequila-based drinks, or maybe you suggest you and your boo go out for some chips, salsa, and tacos. Or maybe you don’t do anything particular, but you take part in a Cinco de Mayo-themed fiesta at work or school. But do you know what you’re celebrating? And are you sure you are celebrating in a way that honors the actual legacy of Cinco de Mayo?

Perhaps, the best way for us to commemorate the day is to view it from outside of a White lens. To stand in solidarity with our revolutionary kinfolk — the people who fought and continue to fight for their intrinsic freedom. To understand it as the Indigenous victory it was.

Cinco de Mayo, or May 5, marks the first battle in the Franco-Mexican War and a tremendous victory for Mexico. La Batalla de Puebla (The Battle of Puebla) took place on May 5, 1862, when the French tried to invade the city of Puebla. Leading up to the invasion, Mexico’s President Benito Juarez, who is of Zapotec Indigenous origin, realized his country was in disrepair. But the country couldn’t rebuild due to foreign creditors: Spain, Great Britain, and France. So, Juarez suspended all payments to the creditors. In retaliation, Spain, Britain, and France invaded Veracruz. Eventually, Juarez reached an agreement with Spain and Britain, but France had other plans.

Napoleon III was determined to seize Mexico for a few reasons, but the most pertinent were:

  1. To expand the French empire.
  2. To exploit Mexico’s natural resources.
  3. To oppose the United States of America

So on May 5, 1862, French forces attacked the city of Puebla, and La Batalla de Puebla occurred. The Mexican army was outnumbered, outarmed, and thought to be outskilled. But they pulled off a terrific victory, taking far fewer casualties than the French. The celebration was tremendous — at that point, the French were the world’s greatest army, and they were defeated by a citizen’s army of mainly volunteers.

The Battle of Puebla cemented the resistance movement. Mexico was free of Spain’s rule, not subject to French rule — some of these Brown people were fighting White supremacy off left and right! They were resolved to maintain their autonomy, and the Battle of Puebla proved that they wouldn’t be subject to imperial rule without a fight.

Cinco de Mayo isn’t celebrated across Mexico. In fact, it’s only celebrated in one Mexican city. So, why is it on all U.S. calendars? You might think that it’s odd that a White, colonialist nation like the United States would choose to nationally recognize an indigenous victory against imperial rule. But it makes sense when you think about what an Americanized Cinco de Mayo celebration consists of.

“I think one of the most problematic parts of how Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the U.S. is the complete loss of historical context,” says Latina freelance writer Samantha Chavarria. “The date became commercialized by beer and alcohol companies in the 80s, but the Battle of Puebla has been honored in the U.S. since 1863 — one year after the actual battle took place.”

In a 2016 Time interview, Jose Alamillo, then a professor of Chicano studies at California State University Channel Islands, said that “U.S. beer companies began to kind of look for ways to target the [increasing] Spanish-speaking population.” In other words, the U.S. capitalist system began looking for ways to commodify the celebration. This likely fueled the fervor that certain Americans have for drinking on Cinco de Mayo. That, and drinking plays into the racist trope of the drunk Mexican.

Cinco de Mayo is now famous — in the U.S. for being affiliated with drinking; so famous that it even has the monikers “Drinko de Mayo” and “Cinco de Drinko.” It’s a day where it’s often heard that we’re celebrating Mexican culture or Mexican Independence Day, but the real Independence Day is September 16th. Plus, we all know a true celebration of freedom wouldn’t include offensive office parties serving stereotypical foods.

“It’s become an excuse to drink and party, with an added dash of Mexican stereotypes to spice things up,” says Chavarria.

Growing up in a White colonialist nation, we’ve been indoctrinated to view Cinco de Mayo through the U.S. lens. The colonizers downplay the significance of the victory against imperial rule in favor of profiting off of racist Mexican tropes. But as we work to build the world that we want to live in, we have to be aware of what we bring into it. And one thing to leave behind is the current colonialist “celebration” of Cinco de Mayo.

The victory at the Battle of Puebla is especially important to Black Americans, not only because the Mexican army’s fight against colonialism mirrors the ways we fight for our own autonomy in a colonialist system, but also because the French supported the Confederacy.

“French forces were meant to join the Confederate army — an alliance that definitely would have meant a Southern victory — but their defeat at Puebla ended that campaign,” Chavarria says.

In a 1994 Los Angeles Times article, Ron Wilkins wrote about the need for Black Americans to properly celebrate Cinco de Mayo, “Through shared misfortune — conquest and slavery — the histories of Mexicans and [B]lacks in this hemisphere are linked. Few, if any, oppressed people have overcome adversity without assistance from allies. Indigenous and African people have been one another’s primary ally in many instances, since the beginning of the pillage, slavery and genocide initiated by Columbus in the Americas 500 years ago.”

As we pull the colonialist veil off our eyes, we’re able to see Cinco de Mayo for what it truly is. It’s not a day to make a full-on sprint through Mexican stereotypes. It’s not a day to play the Mexican Hat Dance on repeat as you show off your high school Spanish skills. It’s not a day to stuff yourself with tacos and tequila shots. It’s not a day to reduce Mexican culture down to a caricature — a costume to be donned under the guise of celebration.

Cinco de Mayo is a tribute to self-determination; an homage to sovereignty in the face of imperialism; and a testimony to the inevitability of our own victory against White supremacy. So how do we celebrate in a way that honors the epic triumph that occurred that day? Chavarria has a few suggestions: “The best way to honor the Battle of Puebla, in my opinion, is by countering the disinformation out there about it. No, it’s not the Mexican Independence Day. No, it’s not celebrated everywhere in Mexico. No, it’s not just an excuse to drink tequila. No, it’s not insignificant to the history of America.”

Perhaps, the best way for us to commemorate the day is to view it from outside of a White lens. To stand in solidarity with our revolutionary kinfolk — the people who fought and continue to fight for their intrinsic freedom. To understand it as the Indigenous victory it was. To see that it represents a triumph for liberty and sovereignty — and to remind us as we continue our fight against colonialism that our victory is assured.

This Cinco de Mayo, and each one hereafter, I urge us to fight against the colonial system’s perversion of this holiday. That we recognize it for what it truly was: a victory for autonomy, a win for the homeland, a triumph that screams liberty and justice for all. By liberating our minds from the distorted colonialistic view of Cinco de Mayo, we’re already honoring the day more than we ever have in the past.

Freelance writer, designer, strategist, comedian. “Insightfully funny” — My Mom. laurencrainm.contently.com

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