When Dr. David E. Hayes-Bautista says the phrase “Drinko de Mayo,” he is far from bitter. He doesn't rant about how Cinco de Mayo has been subjected to brutal commercialization and stripped of its authenticity. It is, after all, difficult to really critique the Mexican beer companies for divesting the holiday of its “true meaning” when most Chicanos themselves, let alone Californians (or the rest of the U.S.), aren't sure why they celebrate it in the first place.

Before he wrote his new book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition to, in his words, “straighten out the history,” Hayes-Bautista, a professor of medicine at UCLA and director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, went most of his life not fully understanding the holiday.

A native of Los Angeles, he knew that his relatives in Mexico didn't celebrate it at all. When he was an undergrad at UC Berkeley in the late 1960s, he and a few fellow Chicano students celebrated Cinco de Mayo by hosting a salsa concert at the Greek Theater. In 1972, when he was a graduate student studying medical sociology at UC San Francisco, a reporter asked him to write an article about why Chicanos celebrated the holiday, but his research led to a kind of dead end. He was baffled.

How could a holiday — that every year unleashes such a frenzy of amphetaminic one-day-only used-car extravaganzas, Mexican pride festivals, faux fiestas, half-hearted office parties, flash-mob mariachis, extreme pinata violence and generalized debauchery and carousing — be so evasive, at least in meaning, to the very communities who arguably value it most?

Hayes-Bautista begins to explain his book as we walk around a new exhibition at L.A. Plaza de Cultura y Artes called “Cinco de Mayo! Latinos in California Respond to the Civil War,” which takes his complex book and makes it accessible for a wider audience. Photographs, newspaper clippings and maps, culled from the Library of Congress and carefully arranged on bright red and blue gallery walls, furnish the visual evidence of Hayes-Bautista's research.

He is a tall man, with a neat, white beard, a red tie and a black suit that hangs slightly loose on his frame. When he speaks, he tends to emphatically sweep his arms and wave his hands. He glances around the room through his large black spectacles, trying to get his bearings. 'I'm seeing this for the first time up here…” he says. Once he locates the map he wants to talk about, he begins.

Cinco de Mayo ostensibly commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over French forces at the Mexican town of Puebla on May 5, 1862. A 1998 study showed that 20 U.S. states celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and almost 80 percent of those celebrations are in the heavily Mexican-American states of California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. But what strikes many as odd is that Cinco de Mayo is all but ignored in most of Mexico.

Two years ago, Hayes-Bautista realized the 150th anniversary of the Puebla battle was approaching in 2012 and decided he needed to do something to punctuate it. As an academic, his first inclination was to write a book. His research led him to some startling yet powerful conclusions about the evolution of California's Latino community.

El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition; Credit: courtesy of Dr. Hayes-Bautista

El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition; Credit: courtesy of Dr. Hayes-Bautista

To get them out of the way, here are the four common myths about Cinco de Mayo that he debunks:

1. It is a Mexican holiday.

2. It is Mexican Independence Day.

3. It is a foreign, un-American holiday.

4. It is a time only for drinking.

According to Hayes-Bautista, the reason Cinco de Mayo became such a fixture in California but not in Mexico lies in the history of Latinos during the American Civil War, which was taking place at the time of that May 5 Mexican victory over the French in Puebla. “People say, 'Latinos here in the Civil War? Nah, you guys just got here. You were never here.' 'No, we were here big-time,'” he says, explaining why documenting his research in a book became a necessity. The stereotype of Latinos as the ever-new Californians, as immigrants, is pervasive.

In the decades before the Civil War, droves of Mexicans (and Central and South Americans) made their way to California when it was still part of Mexico, during the gold and silver rushes. Many became quite wealthy. At the time California was bilingual, with a healthy crop of Spanish-language newspapers to apprise Latinos of the political goings-on at the time.

It also was slave-free, and had been since it was part of Mexico. When Mexico declared independence from Spain on Sept. 16, 1810 (the actual Mexican Independence Day), it also abolished slavery. A few decades later, the Mexican-American War threw California's ownership into question; in 1848 the war ended, and California became a U.S. state. Two years later, as part of the Missouri Compromise, it was formally admitted to the Union as a free state.

This was during a time when the Southern states began to feel increasingly threatened by a potential upset in the balance of free and slave states; slavery was not specifically named and protected by the U.S. Constitution, it had just been interpreted to be lawful. New legislation declaring all nonwhites to be noncitizens alarmed the Latinos and those of mixed race who feared a slippery slope that could lead to their own enslavement.

“[Slavery] wasn't just a parlor-room discussion for Latinos. It was very, very serious,” Hayes-Bautista says.

When events like the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Greaser Act (which permitted a kind of vigilante violence against those of Spanish and Indian blood) and the Dred Scott court decision augured a civil war, Latinos in California and neighboring states began readying themselves to fight for the Union.

To make things a little more confusing, at the same time, France's Napoleon III was looking to invade Mexico in retaliation for President Benito Juarez's inability to make payment on a past debt — now referred to as the “French Intervention.” According to Cindi Dale, chief curator at L.A. Plaza de Cultura y Artes, France saw the possibility of recovering old territory lost in the Louisiana Purchase — and of taking over California.

“We could all be speaking French right now, and people don't even realize this,” says Dale, noting how the fate of California Latinos was threatened by both France and the Confederacy. “I was always taught, even in college, that California didn't really have a role in the Civil War. They did. The Californians knew [that they were in danger] … so they decided that they'd organize themselves.”

Organization against the French took the form of political groups called juntas patrioticas mexicanas. Every month, members were asked to send $1, roughly a day's wages, to Mexico. Eventually, there were more than 14,000 members sending money to help Juarez fight off the French. Thanks to the gold and silver mines, Latinos in California had a considerable amount of disposable income. While there were six juntas in Nevada, one in Oregon and one in Arizona, California boasted 122 juntas, with Los Angeles being the largest and wealthiest by far.

As the U.S. Civil War raged and as Napoleon III's army made its way through Mexico, Latinos defended themselves on two fronts: by fighting in the Union army against the South, and by indirectly fending off France through these juntas. When Mexican troops won the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, it was a watershed moment in the French Intervention. Once word got back to the States, huge celebrations lined the streets — the victory, for Latinos, had much grander, symbolic implications.

“In Mexico, the battle of Puebla [or Cinco de Mayo] means the Mexican army beat the French army. Here [in the U.S.], it meant, for the first time since the guns were fired on Fort Sumter, finally, the army of freedom and democracy stood up and won a big decisive, irrefutable victory, over the army of slavery and white supremacy, elitism. And it just energized Latinos. It gave them hope that maybe the forces of freedom and democracy would prevail,” Hayes-Bautista explains.

For Latinos, a victory in one war (French Intervention) upheld the antislavery, pro-democracy ideals they were also fighting for in another war (the U.S. Civil War). The Cinco de Mayo holiday conflated the two, validating all the effort, money and physical sacrifice the community had poured into them.

Dr. David Hayes-Bautista; Credit: Francisco Castro/HOY Newspaper

Dr. David Hayes-Bautista; Credit: Francisco Castro/HOY Newspaper

All this historical background underlies Hayes-Bautista's argument that Latinos in California (but also other neighboring states) created a powerful public memory around Cinco de Mayo, with the juntas celebrating it every year with lavish parades, dances and music. The nascent Latino-American identity developed around it and through it. However, there were demographic shifts — new Latinos coming into the country and the original generation of Cinco de Mayo celebrants dying off without fully communicating the day's importance to new generations. The skeleton of Cinco de Mayo remained — the fiestas, the revelry — but the public memory faded.

“Newcomers picked up the format and had to create their own history,” Hayes-Bautista says. New generations began to use music they were familiar with, and mariachis became part of the yearly ritual. A new backstory was selected — a broader David-versus-Goliath narrative about how the little guy can rise up and defeat the big guy — which has spoken to the Latino community over the years as it has experienced political, legal and cultural marginalization.

“It's a very plastic, fluid holiday meant to reflect whatever's going on in the Latino community at the time,” Hayes-Bautista says.

Cinco de Mayo might not be a Mexican holiday, but that doesn't mean it's in any way “inauthentic.” Which means that those tequila shots shouldn't taste like liquid guilt. The holiday is, instead, thoroughly American.

Ultimately, Hayes-Bautista's book is about bringing the forgotten past to the forefront of public consciousness, to show us that Cinco de Mayo embodies the early Latino community's rejection of slavery and racial inequality, and its effusive love of freedom and protecting what democracy existed at the time.

This weekend, the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, L.A. Plaza de Cultura y Artes and the Union de Poblanos en el Exterior have programmed a 150th-anniversary celebration in downtown L.A. It will include performances by El Paraiso Ballet Folklorico, Los Chavos de la Cumbia and Luna Sur Este, as well as family workshops, food and a theatrical re-enactment of The Real Cinco de Mayo. For more information on the festivities, visit lapca.org.

Follow Lenika Cruz on Twitter at @HappyLenika, and follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter and Facebook.

LA Weekly