Cinco de Mayo

What You Didn't Learn In School

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We've forgotten the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo.

The Civil War, French imperialism, and the blossoming of diverse Latinx communities in the United States. There's so much more to Cinco de Mayo than you know.

Voices in this Episode

Manny Faces

Manny Faces

News Beat Host & Producer

Michael Conforti, aka Manny Faces, is the host and producer of News Beat Podcast. He’s also an award-winning new media journalist and digital strategist with more than 15 years of experience in news publishing and online journalism, much of which was spent at Morey Publishing’s previously owned alternative news outlet, Long Island Press. Under his Manny Faces pseudonym, he is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Birthplace Magazine, a thriving online entertainment and lifestyle destination focusing on hip hop music and culture in the New York metropolitan area, creator and host of The NY Hip Hop Report, a popular, weekly, live video show/podcast. In late 2015, he founded The Center for Hip-Hop Advocacy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing public awareness of hip-hop’s important artistic and cultural contributions.

Christopher Twarowski

Christopher Twarowski

Editor in Chief

Christopher Twarowski is editor in chief of News Beat, and former editor in chief and chief of investigations of the alt-weekly Long Island Press. He holds an M.S. in Journalism with a specialization in investigative journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was an inaugural member of the school’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. He also holds an M.A. from the school with a concentration in business and economics. Twarowski has written for the financial and metro desks of The Washington Post and has earned more than 150 local, state and national journalism awards and accolades. Follow him on Twitter at @investigations1.

Rashed Mian

Rashed Mian

Managing Editor

Rashed Mian is the managing editor of News Beat. Mian previously covered civil liberties and the Muslim American community for Long Island Press. Mian graduated with a degree in journalism from Hofstra University. Mian is interested in under-reported stories that impact disenfranchised communities as well as issues related to civil liberties. You can find him on Twitter at @rashedmian.

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Introduction

Manny: Hey everyone. This is Manny Faces, co-producer, audio editor, and host of News Beat. Our initial vision for the show is pretty much what you hear in our full, award-winning episodes—a deep dive into important social justice issues that usually only get the surface treatment by mainstream media, delivered in our unique style—interviews with experts, activists and those affected by injustice, mixed with music, and often, original lyrical contributions from brilliant, independent Hip-Hop artists.

As we often say, it’s like Democracy Now! and Black Thought from The Roots had a podcast baby.

Since then, we’ve added a new tool into our arsenal: This Week in Social Justice, a video show airing live on our social networks and then fed to our podcast feed. That casual but expertly curated show allows us to keep shining light on these issues in a timely manner, keeping our audiences informed and engaged on an ongoing basis.

Today’s episode is yet again a new twist on what we do. Longtime listeners will recognize one of our recurring themes: Whether it was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unfinished business, or the depth of Rosa Parks’ activist spirit, or the true breakdown of our nation’s colonization of Puerto Rico, we’ve labeled a few select episodes, 'What You Didn’t Learn in School.'

This will be the first of a new style of episode following our foundational mantra—to take an unconventional look at conventional wisdom, and share some insight about things we thought we knew—things we thought we were taught.

We’re kicking it off with a look at a beloved, but entirely misunderstood unofficial American holiday. So pour yourself a margarita or grab la cerveza mas fina, but while you sip away, join our managing editor, Rashed Mian, myself, and our editor-in-chief Chris Twarowski, and get to know what you’re really toasting to—This is 'Cinco de Mayo: What You Didn’t Learn in School.'

Rashed: Yeah, so it’s that time of year again. I think we should be honest with listeners and state straight up that we’re all likely guilty of celebrating this holiday without really understanding its true origins.

So let me ask you both: If we were to poll Americans about the history of Cinco de Mayo, what do you think they’d say this day represents? 

Manny: Come on. Margaritas. Tequila. Nachos. Mariachi. 

Chris: I mean, I think most people would probably say it has something to do with Mexico’s independence? Wait, you’re not about to tell us that corporate elites co-opted a beautiful, vibrant holiday celebrating Mexican-American heritage that was critical to developing a shared sense of community and pride just so they could cash in, are ya?!?! Or that politicians tried to secure the quote-unquote Latino vote for their own selfish desires and sinister agendas?!?! Come on, man. What the hell you getting at, Rashed? 

Rashed: Well...yeah. But, there’s more…much more to it! 

Manny:  Yea, I mean, everyone knows that! 

[NEWS CLIP PLAYS] 

Speaker 1: You know, I forget the significance of it. Maybe independence of the Mexican country?

Speaker 2: I have no idea.

Speaker 3: Just a random day out of the month. Each year, it's another day for people to party.

Speaker 4: I believe it is when Mexico got their independence.

Speaker 5: Is that their Independence Day?

Speaker 6: It's some type of celebration that they won something but I don't know what it is.

Rashed: No, no, no.

Manny:  Hold on, this what you talking about? 

[AUDIO CLIP PLAYS]

Chris: Wow. Come on, man.

Manny: Alright, alright, alright. Let’s get into it...This is 'Cinco De Mayo: What You Didn't Learn In School.'

Manny: Cinco de Mayo is more than just a holiday. The celebration was borne out of an especially tumultuous period for Mexico and the United States. But for Mexican Americans, this was a particularly trying time, as their two beloved countries were fighting white supremacy and imperialism, respectively. To celebrate Cinco de Mayo is to recall a bloody and traumatic time in history, but also one in which small victories—as with the Battle of Puebla—would galvanize burgeoning Latino communities in California and elsewhere. As David E. Hayes-Bautista writes in his book “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” “The stakes could not have been higher. Both the United States and Mexico were fighting to survive as nations.” By the time we’re done, I think we’ll all agree that there’s nothing wrong about celebrating Cinco de Mayo, but it’s critical that we understand its roots and the combined role all these events played in shaping Latinx life in the U.S. for decades. Unless we want more people like Mike Huckabee, who once tweeted “For Cinco de Mayo I will drink an entire jar of hot salsa and watch old Speedy Gonzales cartoons and speak Spanish all day. Happy Cinco de Mayo!” 

 You, sir, are an idiot and definitely not funny.

So, let’s talk about the spark that ignited Cinco de Mayo and why the holiday still resonates 160 years later. 

The Players

Chris: So we’ve got Mexico, France, the United States, and California. 

  • Mexico - So Mexico at the time was under the leadership of President Benito Juarez, who was elected president in 1861. 
  • France - And ruled by Napoleon the Third, France’s military was widely considered one of the mightiest fighting forces in the world.  
  • United States - Eighty-five years after declaring independence, the United States was fracturing over slavery. Eleven states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina—seceded from the Union over the preservation of slavery, and the South’s financial might—igniting a bitter, and DEADLY, Civil War. 
  • California - Now the most populous state in the country, California was under Mexican rule from 1821 to 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. It officially joined the United States as part of the Compromise of 1850, which permitted its entry as a “free state”—which it wasn’t. 

The Background

Rashed:

  • There’s a lot going on in the Americas around this time. In Mexico, newly elected President Benito Juarez is facing significant challenges and decides to suspend debt payments to several European powers, including Spain, England, and France—or the “Triple Alliance.” 
  • Speaking of the French, Napoleon III ostensibly invades Mexico in retaliation for Jaurez’s pause in paying off Mexico’s debt—even though France was on the hook for less than 5 percent of the collective debt owed by the Alliance. France’s dear leader installed Maximillian of Habsburg as Emperor of Mexico with the express purpose of conquering the country. 
  • Back in the good ol’ US of A, 11 states effectively leaned into their depraved humanity and seceded from the Union, creating the Confederate States of America. And make no mistake, the South was fighting to preserve slavery—and Latinos understand that to be the South’s cause.  
  • California is also significant because it was home to a growing Latino population. When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, about 6,500 people in California were Spanish or of Mexican descent. The Latino population increased dramatically due to the Gold Rush, attracting people from various Latin American countries. While going on with their day-to-day lives, they kept an intense focus on the unfolding Civil War and, of course, the French Intervention in Mexico. 
  • And this is where the two crises intersect. As Hayes-Bautista notes in his book, Juarez announced the suspension of payments on July 17, 1861, just as Union and Confederate forces were marching to their first battle in a war that would eventually claim more than 600,000 lives.  

Manny: So, where are the margaritas?

BATTLE AT PUEBLA

Chris: So, here we are. 

Civil war is raging in the United States. And with the Union distracted and unable to enforce the Monroe Doctrine—which warned against European colonization of the Western Hemisphere—French imperialists descend on Mexico, perhaps sensing an opening to expand European hegemony to the west. That may not have been France’s only motivation, either. Historians note that the Confederacy wanted to be recognized as a sovereign nation—and acceptance from the French would help slave-owning states gain legitimacy and open the Confederacy up to other economies and expand its riches. Or in Hayes-Bautista’s words, quote, “French recognition of the Confederacy might have tipped the balance of the Civil War in favor of the South.” 

Manny: And Mexican-Americans living in California were gravely concerned about the outcome of the Civil War and thought the fates of the United States and Mexico were intertwined. 

Hayes-Bautista found an editorial written in one of the many Spanish-language newspapers that emerged in the Golden State during this period. In the pages of La Voz de Mexico, the editor wrote: “We already have had occasion to prove, in the most indisputable manner, that the cause of the Union is the same one that Mexico is upholding…. Whatever may be the result of this great war, our destiny is discovered to be identified with our adoptive country...If the Union should be dissolved, we would be citizens of a fragment of the Great Republic, which, from the moment of its dismemberment, would be an easy prey to the ambitious monarchists of Europe.”

Spanish-language papers were publishing dispatches of the French Intervention as well—which helped shape how Mexican-Americans viewed the conflict, its consequences, and how people of Mexican descent would go on to embrace Cinco de Mayo. 

Rashed: Meanwhile, at 9 a.m. on May 5, 1862, the French began their assault on Puebla, located less than 100 miles southeast of the capital, Mexico City. And you have to remember, the French had one of the most feared militaries in the world at this time, and 1852 was the same year that the Second French Empire was born. 

The Mexican forces defending Puebla have been described as a “rag-tag” group of soldiers that were dangerously outnumbered. Along with pounding the French with artillery fire, the Mexican soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat, perhaps surprising the French. As Hayes-Bautista notes in "El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition," “After about five minutes of this, there was a sight that had not been seen involving French troops since Waterloo”—after hours of fighting, the French fled. By May 8, they gave up the effort entirely. 

Chris: It took weeks for news of the outcome of the David versus Goliath battle to reach Mexican Americans in California, and they rejoiced. To honor the victory, newspapers petitioned citizens to donate whatever they could to fund an honorary sword that would be given to the General who led the forces defending Puebla from the French: Ignacio Zaragoza. In a fitting tribute to their Mexican American identity, the commissioned sword was decorated with both American and Mexican imagery. Inscribed on the sword was the date: “5 de Mayo de 1862.” 

Manny: And they used it to chop LIMESSS!!! 

Chris: My god.

Manny: No? OK, continue.

CINCO DE MAYO WAS BORN

Manny: And there you have it, folks: Cinco de Mayo was born. But the story doesn’t end there. The celebration of the victory on that day, including the donation effort led by Mexican Americans in California, gave rise to community-based organizations that would go on to fundraise for additional efforts to support their neighbors. These groups also played a crucial role in keeping the memory of the Battle of Puebla alive by organizing annual Cinco de Mayo events. And, of course, the holiday has evolved with each successive generation and became a rallying cry for the Chicano Movement of the 1960s.  

Rashed: The Cinco de Mayo we celebrate today is largely disconnected from its roots. Like many holidays, it’s been co-opted by corporations motivated by dollar signs. It’s something Hayes-Bautista refers to as Cinco de Mayo’s “summoning power”—something both large corporations and political leaders sought to tap into.  

Chris: Even with all the recognition of this day, it’s easy to forget its origins, as well as the larger history surrounding the holiday. Even though Mexican Americans celebrate the defense of Puebla, it should be noted that France eventually made their way past Puebla—after yet another hard-fought battle that lasted 62 days—and ultimately conquered Mexico. After the Union secured victory over the Confederacy, the United States was finally able to intervene. Thanks to some U.S. support, and with the French under financial pressures, Napoleon’s occupation ended in 1866. 

We’ll leave you with the words of Hayes-Bautista, whose book greatly informed this episode. 

“Cinco de Mayo is a genuine American holiday, spontaneously created during the Civil War by ordinary Latinos living in California—soon echoed by others in Nevada and Oregon—as an expression of their support for freedom and democracy throughout the Americas. Far from being foreign or un-American, it originated in a devoted adherence to these basic American political values by the majority of Latinos in the United States, as well as Mexico and other republics in the Western Hemisphere, at a time when those values were under attack from within and without. It should be remembered that from the beginning, Cinco de Mayo parades have flown the U.S. and Mexican flags side by side as symbolic of this fact. That tradition is still followed today, although the reasons are largely forgotten.”

So basically, raise those glasses high, but remember just what you’re celebrating: the Mexican Army’s extraordinary victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla. And though the Mexican Army ultimately lost to the French forces in subsequent battles, their win at Puebla not only was a significant morale boost for the people of Mexico, symbolizing the country's ability to defend its sovereignty against a powerful foreign nation, but in fact, it had robbed the Confederacy of a mighty ally, in France. Thus, a loss at Puebla could have tipped the American Civil War in favor of the slave-loving South—likely casting Black, Brown and Indigenous Peoples throughout all of the United States, and Mexico, in the vicious, brutally torturous chains of slavery far into the foreseeable future, maybe even to this day.

Rashed: Yeah, and what’s crazy is just how lost all this incredible history and vast significance has become, as our corporate overlords have successfully co-opted it all into a major marketing bonanza whereby Corona, for instance, spends millions in commercials, and Americans, collectively, dish out more than $735 million on beer and malt beverages alone—making Cinco de Mayo consistently one of the top-grossing booze holidays of the year, even beating out St. Patrick’s Day and the Super Bowl. Oh, and you guys are going to love this one: Americans also consume upwards of 81 MILLION pounds of avocados on Cinco de Mayo. 

Chris: Damnn. That’s a hella lotta smoothie ingredients, man. And some pretty goddamn super-charged smoothies, on that note lol. 

Manny: Crazy. Well, happy Mexican Independence Day, EVERYBODY!!! No?

Chris: Dude we just went over this lol. The whole point of this episode was to frkn dispel that. It has nothing to do with Mexican independence! That’s celebrated on September 16th and has to do with the Cry of DOLORES, when priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang his church bell and gave the call to arms that triggered the Mexican War of Independence! 

Manny: Alright, I’ll have to listen to this whole thing again. In any case, Mike Huckabee still sucks, and yes I do enjoy a good margarita every once and again. And bourbon. What?!?! Happy CINCO DE MAYO, EVERYONE!!!

Outro

Aight yall, that’s it for today. Thanks for listening, and be sure to check out all of our episodes—whether they are our full, deep dives mixing journalism with music and lyrical brilliance, or 'This Week in Social Justice,' or upcoming episodes of 'What You Didn’t Learn In School.'

Follow us on socials at usnewsbeat, and send us your comments, or suggestions for topics to cover, at newsbeat@moreycreative.com that’s newsbeat@moreycreative.com.

Feel free to leave us a rating and review, but most of all, help spread love and share this episode with a friend or two.

Until next time, my name is Manny Faces, and on behalf of the News Beat, Morey Creative and Manny Faces Media team, we thank you for listening.

Credits

The News Beat Podcast copyright is owned by News Beat, Inc.
© 2021 All rights reserved.

Design and production support for the News Beat Podcast is provided by Morey Creative Studios. www.MoreyCreative.com

  • Producer and Host: Michael “Manny Faces” Conforti
  • Editor in Chief: Christopher Twarowski
  • Managing Editor: Rashed Mian
  • Cover Art Design: Jeff Main
  • Executive Producer: Jed Morey