Latino Studies Cinco de Mayo
David E. Hayes-Bautista
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0091


A Mexico City journalist posted to Los Angeles wrote in 1980, “Cinco de Mayo is not a very important holiday in Mexico. How does Cinco de Mayo come to be celebrated in the United States?” (Hayes-Bautista 2012, cited under Constitutions Clash in the American West, 1821–1848, p. 3). The celebration of Cinco de Mayo has its origins in the US Civil War. Latinos living in California, Nevada, and Oregon created the celebration in 1862, as a public statement about their stance on the issues of the Civil War—their support of freedom and democracy, and opposition to slavery and elitist forms of government. Mexico, as well as most Latin American countries, had abolished slavery as part of their independence from Spain. As California was once part of Mexico, those precepts became the law of the land. Then, in 1848, California was conquered by the United States, whose constitution permitted slavery and the denial of civil rights to nonwhite persons. The admission of California as a free state upset the balance between free and slave states of the Missouri Compromise. The debate on slavery was reopened, eventually leading the slave states to secede in an effort to form a new country whose constitution would permanently protect slavery. The armed phase of the resulting Civil War began when the new Confederate States attacked Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in the spring of 1861. Latinos who had poured into California from Mexico, Central America, and South America during the gold rush overwhelmingly supported the Union. Then, in 1862, with the United States distracted by fighting for its existence, Napoleon III, emperor of the French, sent troops into Mexico, with the goal of establishing a monarchy in place of the democratically elected Mexican government of Benito Juárez. Latinos came to see both conflicts as two fronts in the same war. In major battles in the first years of the war, Union armies seemed unable to decisively defeat the Confederates, or the Mexicans to stand against the French, and public morale sank. Then, just as Confederates were trouncing the United States in the Seven Days Battle outside of Richmond, news arrived in California from Mexico that the French imperial army had been decisively thrown back from Puebla by outmanned Mexicans. Spontaneous celebrations supporting the ideas of freedom, democracy, and racial equality were formalized and the commemoration of the Cinco de Mayo was born in the United States.

Slavery and Race in the Americas, 1492–1821

The role of slavery and race in US history has been very well researched. Race and slavery in Mexico and Latin America has not received as much attention, but the body of literature is growing. Mexican anthropologist Gonzalo Aguirre Beltrán has been among the pioneers researching the origin and influence of African people and culture in Mexico. Aguirre Beltrán 1972 includes an extensive investigation of attempts by the Spanish Crown to regulate and tax the slave trade. Aguirre 2005 provides a similar overview of African influence in the economy and culture of Peru. The free black population of colonial Mexico had a social role different from the free blacks in the United States. Vinson 2001 shows that being black, in colonial Mexico, was not a bar to armed service. Free blacks (pardos, mulatos, etc.) in colonial Mexico formed their own militia, with a charter from the Spanish Crown; they subsequently resisted integration into white units, so as to maintain their civic and racial identity. Iberian, indigenous, and African populations intermingled and produced children along a wide spectrum of racially mixed heritage. Martínez 2008 notes how the Iberian notion of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) was adapted to the Latin American situation under Spanish rule, to create a hierarchy of castes defined by an individual’s admixture of European, Indian, and African ancestry. Anywhere from sixteen to twenty-eight castes were identified at various times; García Saíz 1989 provides a visual guide to the castas hierarchy that evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries. In contrast to the pattern of US independence, Latin American independence movements legally abolished slavery and racial categorization. De la Torre Villar 2010 on the Mexican constitution reports that two months after Fr. Miguel Hidalgo declared Mexican independence on 16 September 1810, José María Morelos published the first decree of the nascent government, Bando aboliendo las castas y la esclavitud (“Proclamation abolishing castes and slavery”). Bonilla 2010 is a collection of articles that covers how Mexican forces fighting for independence accepted Indians and blacks into their ranks, promising freedom to former slaves of both races who joined. Most Latin American countries followed five major steps, albeit adopted in varying orders, to the abolition of slavery. Saponara 2008 uses the case of Peru to illustrate these steps to abolition: individual freedom in exchange for military service, freedom for children born of slave mothers, suppression of the slave trade, freedom for slaves entering the country, and finally complete abolition and emancipation.

  • Aguirre, Carlos. Breve historia de la esclavitud en el Perú: Una herida que no deja de sangrar. Lima, Peru: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Perú, 2005.

    Provides material on the origins of slavery in Peru, its importance in agriculture, and a description of the culture developed by the slaves, remnants of which yet endure.

  • Aguirre Beltrán, Gonzalo. La población negra de México. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1972.

    This is the seminal work on African slaves in Mexico, with an emphasis on Spanish colonial laws that facilitated the growth of slavery.

  • Bonilla, Heraclio, ed. Indios, negros y mestizos en la Independencia. Bogota, Colombia: Editorial Planeta, 2010.

    A collection of articles by various authors on the roles of Indians, blacks, mestizos, and mulattos in the wars of independence in various South American countries, including Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, and Peru.

  • de la Torre Villar, Ernesto. La constitución de Apatzingán y los creadores del estado mexicano. 2d ed. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 2010.

    A collection of primary documents pertaining to the formation of the first constitution of Mexico in 1814, with appendices.

  • García Saíz, María Concepción. Las Castas Mexicanas: Un Género Pictórico Americano. Mexico City: Olivetti, 1989.

    Richly illustrated presentation of castas paintings, with explanatory text. The author points out anthropological detail in the images, noting that the genre privileges the criollo (pure European ancestry) perspective.

  • Martínez, María Elena. Genealogical Fictions: Limpieza de Sangre, Religion, and Gender in Colonial Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

    Provides an overview of the rise of categories of “purity of blood” in the Iberian Peninsula, and their application in the Americas to create a racial hierarchy based on proportions of Spanish, indigenous, and African ancestry.

  • Saponara, Manuel. Inglaterra y la abolición de la esclavitud en el Perú: Aspectos de política pública, 1820–1854. Lima, Peru: Fondo Editorial del Congreso del Peru, 2008.

    Provides a chronology of Peru’s somewhat tortuous course toward abolition, finally decreed in 1854. The influence of British abolitionist policy on Peru and neighboring countries is detailed.

  • Vinson, Ben, III. Bearing Arms for His Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001.

    A data-based study of militia units composed of, and led by, African-origin volunteers in late-18th-century Mexico.

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