As American as July 4th — on May 5th
It’s true that Cinco de Mayo is more popular and more celebrated in California than in Mexico, where the Battle of Puebla that it commemorates actually took place. But contrary to popular belief, that is not because of U.S. Latinos’ flimsy grasp of history, says David Hayes-Bautista. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
Hayes-Bautista, an epidemiologist and director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture, concerns himself with issues of sickness and wellness writ across the Latino population of the United States. He’s a data guy. He doesn’t normally delve into issues of history, much less the history of a holiday like Cinco de Mayo.
But it was data, found almost by accident, that led him to write his latest book, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, which he discusses this Sunday, April 22, at the Autry, as part of the Go West Reading Series co-sponsored by the Autry, PEN Center USA and UC Press.
“I use census data, hospital discharge data, birth files, death files, you name it,” he told me this week. “I’m a data guy.”
Historians also make use of such records, but they do so in a vastly different way. Hayes-Bautista has spent three decades studying what he calls the Latino epidemiological paradox, which says Latinos, despite greater poverty, poorer prospects, less education and less access to care than the general U.S. population,are healthier and live longer.
“[They] have 30 to 35 percent fewer heart attacks, compared to non-Hispanics, have 40 percent fewer cancers, have 25 percent fewer strokes, have lower infant mortality, live three to five years longer,” Hayes-Bautista said. “A paradox, isn’t it?”
Hayes-Bautista wanted to see how this paradox expressed itself in historical terms. He began with a focus on California, and he had pretty good birth, death and epidemiology records for Latinos going back to about 1940. Before then, however, the picture got murkier.
“How do I get data for, say, the Gold Rush, for Latinos?” he said. “Because birth records were not routinely kept until about 1890, death records not till about 1895.”
Hayes-Bautista turned to local Spanish-language newspapers of the time, which frequently printed birth, marriage and death announcements for the Latino/Hispanic communities throughout the state. He notes that, even today, no one leafing through the Los Angeles Times would have any idea that Los Angeles is almost half Latino. But if they turn to La Opinion, “it’s like a parallel universe.” So in reading the Latino papers of the 19th century, including the influential El Clamór Público, he kept noticing what got reported along with the birth notices, christenings, First Communions, Confirmations, quinceañera celebrations, birthdays, and obituaries he was looking for.
“I would pull data out. But as I was doing that I would notice in the columns around the data, in Spanish, (stories about) the Fugitive Slave Law; the American Know-Nothing Party, (and I’m) reading about it in Spanish in California; hmm, the Dred-Scott decision; hmm, John Brown marches on Harpers Ferry; oh my God, the Conferederate guns fire on Fort Sumter; the French land in Veracruz (Mexico),” Hayes-Bautista said. “Even though I’m still pulling the data out, I figured, I have to share the rest of this story.”
Hayes-Bautista wondered why news about the conflicts around slavery and the Civil War mattered to Californios and Mexicans, and why that news got equal billing with the war for control of Mexico that was going on in those same decades.
“When I got to the 1860s, I was looking for these vital statistics, and the Spanish-language newspapers suddenly got very, very filled with lists of people that were neither being born, nor getting married, nor dying,” he said. “I thought, ‘God, this is crowding out the good stuff.’ They were just taking a lot of space and I was really annoyed for a couple of months. Until finally I realized they were the data because these were the membership lists of a new group of organizations called the Juntas Patrióticas Mexicanas that were organized in fact to help (Benito) Juárez after the French intervention.”
In other words, Mexicans and Californios in the United States in the 1860s were actively helping to fund — with one day’s salary of every month — the struggle to throw off French imperialism and establish an independent government in Mexico. It was a second fight for independence, but against French, not Spanish, control. And the people who were doing this, Hayes-Bautista says, believed that struggle was of a piece with the efforts to end slavery in the United States that culminated in the Civil War. So when the Mexican forces defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, Spanish-speaking Californians had real reason to celebrate. It was a victory that had come about in large part thanks to their efforts.
“There were 129 places in California that established these Juntas Patrióticas Mexicanas,” Hayes-Bautista said. “They would publish their membership lists every month of the ones who paid their dues that then got sent to Mexico…. They were a spontaneous reaction to receiving the news of what happened at the Battle of Puebla.”
For Hayes-Bautista as a researcher, the existence of these lists provided a source of information about almost 14,000 California Latinos in the 19th century that was independent of the U.S. census, which for various reasons did not document their presence quite so diligently. Sometimes, for example, the Californios did not care to be found because then they were subject to taxes. By contrast, Hayes-Bautista says, the members of these organizations wanted to be recognized in this context, as dues-paying members working for the cause of liberty.
“Of course the issue is why was it important to them,” he said. “That’s what the book is all about.”
Hayes-Bautista documents what happened to the formerly Mexican Californios from Feb. 2, 1848, when the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo made them American citizens, through Dec. 20, 1860, when South Carolina seceded from the Union, unleashing, just months later, the Civil War. In between, gold was discovered in California late in 1848, and as word of it spread in Latin America through traveling ships, people rushed to California, swelling the region’s Hispanic population even before the famed Forty-Niner rush from the Eastern United States and Europe began the following year.
Some made fortunes and became quite influential, and most had children here who were first-generation American Latinos, the first to face problems of perception, influence and power sharing that are still with us. And those who came from Mexico came from a place where slavery had been declared illegal since 1810, so, politically, a significant portion of them lined up with the Union.
At the time, the Spanish-language newspapers that catered to this population covered lynchings, the persecution of fugitive slaves, and later, the passage of vagrancy laws such as the “greaser” laws that gave wide latitude to police in the region to incarcerate Latinos. To Hayes-Bautista, those laws are precursors of current measures like Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama ‘s HB 58, that Latinos consider racial profiling. Latinos then also viewed the measures and the advance of the Confederacy, on the strength of several early victories, with alarm. The Juntas Patrióticas became the vehicle by which they resisted what they viewed as the forces of slavery and tyranny.
As the Civil War dragged on in the U.S., Mexicans in California also kept tabs on what was happening in their home country, and they didn’t like it one bit. Civil war was also wreaking havoc in Mexico, then under Juarez’s embattled leadership. The cancellation of debt payments to France prompted Napoleon III of France, eyeing an easy chance to gain territory and set up a puppet regime, to send an army to Mexico. Napoleon at the time was flirting with the Confederacy, dangling official recognition as a prize in return for cooperation.
The first significant engagement between the French and the Mexicans was the Battle of Puebla, and the defeat of the French came as a big surprise. To the Californios, it was also a first signal that the forces of right could win out, no matter what side of the U.S.-Mexico border they were on.
“Around May 27, they found out what happened in Puebla, and they interpreted it differently from the way it’s interpreted in Mexico,” Hayes-Bautista said. “In Mexico it was ‘the Mexican army beat the French army; yay for Mexico.’ Here, after a year of things going badly for the Union army and things beginning to look like maybe the Confederates are going to win this, it was not simply that the Mexican army beat the French army, but basically, for the first time since the guns had fired on Fort Sumter, finally, the army of freedom and democracy beat the army of slavery and elitism.”
An American celebration had been born.