Take Back Cinco: The Battle of Puebla and Latino Identity in the 1800s

Today Americans of all colors will set aside their differences to double tequila sales while devouring 81 million avocados. In Gozamos’ continued effort to “Take Back Cinco,” we’re commemorating the day with satiric headlines and dropping some much-needed knowledge about the battle’s real significance. Before you pick up that margarita, take a few minutes to learn how the holiday really came about and how it shape Latino identity in the 1800s.

What happened at the Battle of Puebla?

General Ignacio Zaragoza led an army of 4,500 poorly equipped soldiers, many of who were mestizo and indigenous Zapotec, against Napoleon III’s French army of 6,000 well-trained troops. Despite being outnumbered, the Mexican army won the battle, which lasted four hours and ended with the loss of 500 French troops and less than 100 Mexican troops.

Why did France invade Mexico?

Money, power, and land. In 1861, a year before the Battle of Puebla, Mexico declared it would temporarily stop repaying foreign debt. England, Spain, and France invaded Mexico, and while Spain and England later withdrew, the French stayed. They tried to establish a monarchy and curtail U.S. power in North America.

Why was the Battle of Puebla so important to Mexico?

The Battle of Puebla became a symbol of resistance against foreign domination.

Did Latinos living in the U.S. in the 1800s even hear about the Battle of Puebla?

Yes. Mexican media and media in California went wild sharing the news of the win in Puebla. A Cinco de Mayo celebration took place in California in May of 1862, barely three weeks after the battle. Since then, Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in California communities every year.

Was there even a “Latino” community in the mid-1800s in the U.S.?

Yes, there was a Latino community—and one not made up of only Mexican immigrants and those born in California when it was Mexico. Some of the first organizers to help commemorate the battle were from Central and South America.

Why did Latinos in California care about a battle 1,500 miles away?

The mid-1800s saw dramatic changes for both Mexico and the U.S. With Mexico losing California to the U.S. in 1848, and the U.S. later engaged in a civil war, Latinos in California experienced firsthand a crumbling Mexico, the rising domination of the U.S., racist U.S. laws against Latinos, and both countries’ struggles to hold their nation together. California’s old and new owners were struggling to survive and resolve their identity crisis, struggles Latinos in California were all too familiar with. Mexican Californians’ continued connection to their homeland erupted when France invaded Mexico. Some had even offered to enlist in the Mexican army. It is no wonder mass efforts were made to commemorate the Battle of Puebla.

As David E Hayes-Bautista states in his book, Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, “As Latinos exercised their agency to create this new public event during the early days of the American Civil War, they were engaging in the social construction of their own identity and culture, that of Latinos living in the United States during a time of war.”

For more about the origins of Cinco de Mayo and its connection to Latino identity, check out David E Hayes-Bautista’s book Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, our main go-to source for this article.

[image: 5th of May celebration, 1880, the Plaza de Armas, Guadalajara, Jalisco]