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Celebrating Cinco de Mayo: Past and Present

Thursday - 5/2/2013, 8:55am  ET

Alex Beall, special to wtop.com

On May 5, people across the United States will celebrate Cinco de Mayo with margaritas, mariachi and parades and festivals. But few know the history behind the day that so many Americans celebrate.

WTOP talked with the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, D.C. and David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture and author of "Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition," to learn more about the history of the holiday.

The holiday started with an unlikely victory of the Mexican army on May 5th that became a rallying cry for Latinos living in the United States during the American Civil War. The battle, which occurred in Mexico during the same time as the Civil War, was used to improve morale in favor of the Union army.

"This memory was really part of the public memory of Latinos living in the United States at that time," says Hayes-Bautista.

On that day in 1862, the Mexican army, under General Ignacio Zaragoza, defeated the French army at La Batalla de Puebla, or the Battle of Puebla.

Spain, England and France had invaded Mexico after Mexican President Benito Juarez suspended the payment of foreign debts for two years in 1861. England and Spain withdrew, but the French army continued its advance.

In Puebla, a town 70 miles east of Mexico City, the two armies clashed, ending in a Mexican victory.

The Latinos compared this unlikely victory in the name of the Mexican democratic government to the Union army's apparently losing battle for freedom against the Confederate South.

The people of Mexico, the first country to abolish slavery and racial discrimination, upheld these values and hoped for their implementation in the U.S. through a Union victory.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations promoted the fight for these values.

Latinos in the Union army also formed community organizations to raise money for Juarez's army. The groups met every month for five years, giving speeches based on the Battle of Puebla.

The people celebrated the day with parades, Civil War and Latino style dances and songs such as "John Brown's Body," "Adios Mama Carlota," the "Star-Spangled Banner" and the "Himno Nacional Mexicano" (Mexican National Anthem).

"It was a very bilingual, bicultural celebration around issues of the values that were under attack at that time of freedom, democracy and racial equality," Hayes- Bautista says.

The day is only celebrated in Puebla, Mexico with a short military procession.

Today in the U.S., the celebration emphasizes the party over the history, according to Hayes-Bautista. It includes mariachi music and dancing adelitas, a Mexican folkloric dance, both of which were invented long after the Civil War.

The origin of Cinco de Mayo was lost with the generations.

In the early 1900s, the holiday was rebranded when Mexicans immigrated to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution and joined into the holiday, adding the traditional Mexican elements that people know today.

"It has devolved into something that equates to a St. Patrick's Day celebration -- just a big ethnic something or other," Hayes-Bautista says.

D.C. will host several of its own Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

On the holiday, the Maru Montero Dance Company will host its 21st National Cinco de Mayo Festival at the National Mall. Festivities include music, dance, arts and crafts and food.

The Hylton Center will celebrate with a performance by the Mexican-American singer, Lila Downs. Her style fuses traditional Mexican music with jazz, soul, blues and the like.

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