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On May 5th each year, patrons in the United States crowd restaurants for specials on tacos, cervezas and tequila in “celebration” of Cinco de Mayo.
Many of those appropriating sombreros and downing shots have likely long been told the day is “Mexico’s Fourth of July”.
But half a century after Mexico gained independence on September 16, 1821, the country fought another battle in Puebla. This battle, and the lost history of Cinco de Mayo, included a stunning blow to the crawl of white supremacy across the continent.
How Cinco de Mayo directly affected American history
More than fifty years after Mexico gained independence from Spain, the country was again in a battle for its sovereignty. French troops, at the direction of French Emperor Napoleon III, launched an assault on Mexico City.
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, the first President of France and nephew of the famed Napoleon I, saw an opportunity to expand the French empire.
America was mired in the grips of the Civil War, unable to counter a French attack on Central America.
Napoleon III, according to historians, planned to overtake Mexico and provide aid to the Confederacy in order to weaken the United States even more.
But as the “elite” French army marched toward the Mexican capitol, they ran into unexpected resistance by General Ignacio Zaragoza and his troops at the city of Puebla.
The Mexican army overwhelmed the French, forcing them into retreat. It took a year for the French to regroup and win a victory in Puebla before taking Mexico City. By that time, the United States was already on the verge of defeating the Confederacy at Vicksburg.
“If Mexico had not defeated the French in Puebla on May 5, 1862, France would have gone to the aid of the Confederacy,” wrote Mexican Historian Justo Sierra.
“The U.S. Civil War and the destiny of the United States and the freedom of its people may have been different.”
Mexico had already outlawed slavery within a few short years of winning its independence. Now, it played a key role in the United States doing the same.
Mexico’s history of combatting White supremacy
The continued distilling of Mexico’s cultural and historical significance down to stereotypes fails to capture the nation’s powerful and storied influence.
Equally missed in the appropriated and whitewashed version of Cinco de Mayo is the diversity of the Mexican people. Lineage stretches from indigenous Americans to descendants of the African Diaspora.
While the Mexican government didn’t begin collecting data on its citizens of African descent until 2016, a recent study showed 25% of all Americans with lineage from any Hispanic/Latin nation identify as Afro-Latino.
At the height of its territorial expansion, the country encompassed much of the modern day United States. By the late 1800s, Mexico stretched from the Yucatan Peninsula to what is now Northern California.
Throughout its history, Mexico has fought back against the brutalities of white supremacy and colonialism.
That was true when the indigenous Aztecs and Mayans fought against Spanish conquistadors. It was true when the country gained its independence from Spain in 1821. It was true when the nation became the first in North America to outlaw slavery later that same decade.
And it was true on May 5, 1862 when the nation aided our country in combatting the Confederacy.
The legacy of Cinco de Mayo is one rooted in a long push toward revolution, justice and liberation. It is a legacy deserving of a dignity and honor across the United States.