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The Historically Accurate Way to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

4 minute read

Many Americans may view Cinco de Mayo as a day for feasting on Mexican cuisine. But the very first versions of those May 5 celebrations — which did not begin in Mexico, but rather in the U.S. during the era of the Gold Rush and the Civil War — were less about food and drink, and more about taking a side in a then-ongoing geopolitical conflict.

But, says one expert, that means it’s possible to throw a historically appropriate Cinco de Mayo party.

The May 5 event that is commemorated by the holiday was the victory of a ragtag group of Mexican fighters over Napoleon III’s well-organized French forces at the May 5, 1862, Battle of Puebla. The parties started almost immediately, among Latinos living in California, Nevada and Oregon, who had been drawn north during the previous decade by the Gold Rush and who heard the news of the victory not too long after it happened.

Their reasons for celebrating the result went beyond pride in their homeland. At the time, Nevada was not yet a state but California and Oregon had relatively recently joined the Union as free states. The Civil War had begun, and the question of abolition of slavery’s future throughout the U.S. was not yet decided. Meanwhile, in Mexico, the French were hoping to oust democratically-elected President Benito Juarez and form a new monarchy. That new government, it was thought by many, would make an alliance with the Confederate States of America and maybe even reestablish slavery in Mexico, where it had been abolished earlier.

“The slave states were looking for one European country to recognize their existence,” says David Hayes-Bautista, author of El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, and they hoped France could be the one.

The first of the spontaneous celebrations of the victory at Puebla took place in the Gold Rush town of Columbia in Tuolumne Country, Calif. After all, it was a “very scary” time for Latinos in California, says Hayes-Bautista. Because the region was part of Mexico until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and ceded California to the United States, they had benefited from the abolition of slavery and the encouragement of racial equality. (Independence movements all over Latin America made racial equality and the abolition of slavery two of their main goals.) When California became part of the U.S., even though it would be a free state, those same people suddenly lived in a country where nonwhites weren’t considered citizens.

So in California, specifically, the news galvanized that population to start a statewide network of community organizations, Juntas Patriticas Mejicanas, dedicated to supporting both the Mexican president’s efforts to fight the French and Lincoln’s efforts to fight the Confederate States of America. (The connection between the Mexican-American population and the Civil War didn’t stop there, either. For example, 18-year-old Union Army Corporal Joseph H. De Castro became the first Hispanic-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, while Platón Vallejo, the first Latino physician from California to attend medical school in the U.S., was a volunteer surgeon with the Union Army who was even at the second battle of Bull Run.)

The story of the Battle of Puebla would be repeated at these community organizing meetings every year, but by the time that Mexicans who came over during the Gold Rush and the children who were born during that period died off in the 1920s and 1930s, the meaning of Cinco de Mayo within the context of the American Civil War started to be forgotten. And Cinco de Mayo would not be celebrated widely in Mexico (except in Puebla) because the French ended up winning a second battle of Battle of Puebla, which allowed them to push on to Mexico City and install Maximilian I as the country’s empire.

Though Hayes-Bautista has found mentions of businesses wishing consumers a happy fifth of May as early as the 1930s, companies began recognizing Cinco de Mayo celebrations more and more in the 1980s and 1990s as the U.S. Hispanic population grew. Hayes-Bautista believes modern-day Cinco de Mayo gatherings that focus on drinking have lost the spirit of social justice that they used to carry.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible to throw an authentic Cinco de Mayo party: Hayes-Bautista says that turning your party into a fundraiser for an advocacy organization would be a “much more appropriate” and historically accurate way to celebrate.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com