Friday, May 5, 2017

Cinco de Mayo: Two Wars, Two Nations, and a Holiday with California Origins

Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma, Fountain Valley Mural (1974–76)  
Detail, Battle of Puebla, May 5, 1862 
Copyright © O’Cadiz Family Private Collection

155 years ago years today, on May 5, 1862, an assault was waged by French soldiers against Mexico. Its outcome was decided when Mexican troops victoriously defended their country. The Battle of Pueblo, an early battle of the 6-year-long French-Mexican War, helped transform a country divided by regional interests into one united against foreign intervention.

It was a David-and-Goliath story: 2,000 Mexican soldiers prevailing against 6,000 well-provisioned troops of the world’s most powerful and largest army. The battle began at daybreak, and when it concluded with the French in retreat, only 100 Mexican soldiers had been killed, compared to nearly 500 enemy forces.

Battle of May 5, 1862
Museo Nacional de la Intervenciones, Ex Convento de Churubusco, INAH

Across the border in the United States, where Latinos of Mexican heritage anxiously followed the conflict, Spanish-language newspapers in California reported the victory. As David Hayes-Bautista writes in his groundbreaking book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition: “In town after town, camp after camp, mine after mine, ranch after ranch, Latinos eagerly absorbed the news. Those who could read shared the glorious details with their illiterate fellows, and up and down the state, Latinos savored the blow-by-blow reporting from the front lines of the conflict that had so riveted their attention.”

However, these celebrations were not just for the Mexican homeland. The United States itself was engaged in Civil War, and Latinos sought to preserve California’s status as a “free state,” particularly as Confederate soldiers advanced into New Mexico and Arizona. “When Latinos here got the news that French were stopped at Puebla, it electrified the population, and propelled them to a new level of civic participation. Latinos joined the Union army and navy and some went back to Mexico to fight the French,” Hayes-Bautista explained in an interview.

In parades throughout the state, Latinos proclaimed their support against French imperialism in Mexico and against the Confederacy in the United States, carrying U.S. and Mexican flags and singing their anthems. As Bautista-Hayes writes, “Cinco de Mayo was made in America, by Latinos who proudly bore the U.S. and Mexican flags to show their support for both the Union and its values and for the Mexican victory over the French, who sought to undermine those values.”

Daniel Greene, Romualdo Pacheco, 2005
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

Many Mexican Americans in California (called Native Californians during that era) joined volunteer units of the Union Army. In 1863, Governor Leland Stanford commissioned Romualdo Pacheco—who later became California’s twelfth governor, the only Hispanic to serve in that position to date—as a brigadier general in the California state militia. Pacheco commanded Hispanic troops in the First Brigade of the Native Cavalry of the California Volunteers. As cavalry recruits, these Californios from the state’s vast ranchos were expert horsemen, skilled as lancers, and experienced in the field.

California Lancers, 1846
Published in Tom Prezelski, Californio Lancers: The 1st Battalion of Native Cavalry in the Far West, 
1863–1866 (Norman: Arthur H. Clark Co./University of Oklahoma Press, 2015)

Captain Antonio Maria de la Guerra
Company C, First Battalion, Native California Cavalry

The Native California Cavalry in California, 1863–1865

With its origins in 1860s California, Cinco de Mayo was rediscovered 100 years later. During the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Mexican Americans across the nation—primarily in the Southwest—protested inequalities for U.S. Latinos. Chicana/Chicano muralists also took to the streets, embedding their expressions of cultural pride, their heritage, and their challenges to the status quo on the walls of city buildings, housing projects, and other community structures. Though many are no longer visible, to this day Chicana/o murals remain an integral part of self-expression, Chicana/Chicano culture and heritage, and a significant contribution to the historical record.

(Detail) Cinco de Mayo, May 5, 1976 
Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma, Fountain Valley Mural, 1974–76
Copyright © O’Cadiz Family Private Collection

An example is the sequence of 25 scenes that comprise Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma’s Fountain Valley Mural, painted in the Colonia Juarez neighborhood from 1974 to 1976 but destroyed in 2009. Beginning with the arrival of Mexican peasants in California when Orange County was still farmland, the mural’s narrative jumps into the future to the Chicano Movement, and then goes back in time to tell the history of modern Mexico. With the mural’s replacement by a bland block wall, a significant part of Colonia Juarez’s unique and colorful history was lost.

Shelly Kale
Publications and Strategic Projects Manager



Learn more about Chicana/o murals in September 2017

The stories of Southern California murals whose messages were almost lost forever

A PUBLICATION of the California Historical Society and LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in association with Angel City Press, Los Angeles

AN EXHIBITION at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, Los Angeles, September 20, 2017–February 27, 2018

Part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles, taking place from September 2017 through January 2018 at more than 70 cultural institutions across Southern California. Pacific Standard Time is an initiative of the Getty. The presenting sponsor is Bank of America.

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