El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition

El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition

El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition

El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition

Synopsis

Why is Cinco de Mayo--a holiday commemorating a Mexican victory over the French at Puebla in 1862--so widely celebrated in California and across the United States, when it is scarcely observed in Mexico? As David E. Hayes-Bautista explains, the holiday is not Mexican at all, but rather an American one, created by Latinos in California during the mid-nineteenth century. Hayes-Bautista shows how the meaning of Cinco de Mayo has shifted over time--it embodied immigrant nostalgia in the 1930s, U.S. patriotism during World War II, Chicano Power in the 1960s and 1970s, and commercial intentions in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, it continues to reflect the aspirations of a community that is engaged, empowered, and expanding.

Excerpt

According to one version of Bautista family legend, on May 5, 1862, my great-great-grandfather, Bartolo Bautista, stood on the walls of Puebla and watched the mighty French army march into view. He had been born in San Miguel Atlautla, in the state of Mexico, about seventy kilometers southeast of Mexico City, high on the slopes of Popocatepetl, on the opposite side of the volcano from the city of Puebla. The French charged, a battle ensued, and amid the smoke and noise, my great-great-grandfather’s unit was isolated, surrounded, and taken prisoner. They were told that they were going to be shot and should prepare themselves to die. The French put my great-greatgrandfather and his comrades up against a wall. First, however, they ordered the prisoners to remove their shirts. The French army lived off the territories they occupied and therefore intended to use their victims’ clothing, so they did not want to get the shirts bloody. The Mexican prisoners removed their shirts and presented their bare chests to the firing squad.

But now the French soldiers appeared to be carrying on a confused discussion. Finally, one of them pointed to my great-great-grandfather and waved him out of the execution line; he was not going to be shot. Why not? A birthmark had just saved his life. The dark splotch over his heart was in the form of a hand, all five fingers clearly visible, so detailed that one could even see the fingernails. The French soldiers superstitiously refused to take aim at the heart below such a birthmark, so he was let go. He returned to Atlautla and later had a family, and I now exist to write this book 150 years later.

I first heard this story in the early 1970s, in Atlautla. An uncle, Adán Páez, who had a story for every occasion, managed to slip this particular incident into a long line of family and town lore he was sharing with me over merienda, the Ibero-American equivalent of teatime, served between . . .

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