A Cinco de Mayo Ditty
Music has always been part of the festivities in the 150 years that Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in Southern California. But among the archives at the Autry is a popular song that could have been intoned at that first known pachanga to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, in May 1862 in Columbia, CA, not long after outnumbered Mexican soldiers defeated Napoleon III’s invading forces at the Battle of Puebla in Central Mexico.
The song is called “Napoleón Nació Pa’ Rey”and it taunts the French ruler, calling him a thief, asserting Mexicans’ determination to defend their soil, and telling the story of that fateful battle. “The morning is serene, but the cannon shots can be heard,” one of the lines goes. “In the liberal troops, he inspires hatred.”
The recording is on one of more than 400 wax cylinders that form part of a collection of Spanish, Mexican and indigenous songs that Charles Lummis, the founder of Los Angeles’ Southwest Museum of the American Indian, recorded early in the 20th Century at the home he built in Mount Washington. Lummis, also the city’s first librarian and a one-time editor at the Los Angeles Times, was in touch with many of the old Spanish and Mexican families that had lived in Los Angeles since its founding in the late 17oos.
From the time he arrived in 1884, he saw them, as well as the indigenous people of the area, as major contributors to the region’s history and keepers of important strands of its culture. In fact, since the early 1890s, he had been collecting the lyrics to Spanish and Mexican songs in his notebooks and diaries, and some of his wax recordings also contain indigenous songs.
Kim Walters, the Autry’s Ahmanson Curator of Native American History and Culture and the interim director of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, said Lummis was concerned that this cultural legacy was vanishing.
“Lummis was attempting to keep alive what he considered Spanish folk songs,” Walters said. “In his writings he said that many of these people were forgetting them; he was interested in recording them and having the musical transcriptions done of them.”
So he enlisted his friends and acquaintances to do the work, spending parts of the first decade of the 1900s, especially the years 1904 and 1905, recording their voices on a wax cylinder recorder similar to Edison’s versions that eventually became prototypes for the phonograph.
Among these friends and acquaintances was Adalaida Kamp, Walters said. Kamp was the granddaughter of Nicolás Higuera, a Mexican soldier at the Presidio in San Francisco from 1819-1823 and later the recipient of a land grant known as Rancho Entre Napa, which comprised the northeastern section of what is today the town of Napa, CA.
Walters said Lummis wrote in his diary that Kamp, an elderly lady by the time the wax cylinders were made, recorded seven songs on the day she recorded “Napoleón Nació Pa’ Rey.” Altogether, she recorded 65 songs for him in June and July 1904.
“She sang songs that either were from her family or from other people that were around that she knew at that time,” Walters said. “Some songs she could have learned from José de la Rosa, a family friend.”
De la Rosa is important in California history because many scholars consider him the first professional printer to come to the region, in 1833. He lived with the Higuera family for a time, and he was also known as a musician, singer and composer. He willed his notebook to Kamp, and she later transcribed some of the songs in it for Lummis.
So for those of you curious to hear what some of the earliest Cinco de Mayo celebrations might have sounded like, the following link should give you an idea: W C D 28. Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone!