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5 ways you can observe La Batalla de Puebla, aka Cinco de Mayo, in Kansas City

A man pushes open a door to a small building. In foreground is a bright, green sign with red letters that reads "Cinco de Mayo."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A customer enters Ricos Tacos Lupe on Thursday, May 5, 2022 along Southwest Boulevard.

What better way to observe a day that celebrates freedom and democracy than by supporting local events, people and places? Here’s your Kansas City guide to exploring the true meaning behind La Batalla de Puebla in a new way.

The significance of May 5 to the Mexican American population is often misunderstood.

Nearly 200 years ago on the West Coast, news broke about Mexican troops defeating a French attempt to overthrow Puebla, Mexico. It was an unlikely win, but one that meant the world to Californio, Mexican and other Latinx miner workers. So, a couple of weeks after General Ignacio Zaragoza led his troops to victory, the miners burst out in celebration.

Thus began the celebration in honor of May 5, or el cinco de Mayo as it’s said in Spanish.

What better way to observe a day that celebrates freedom and democracy than by supporting local events, people and places? Here’s your Flatland guide to exploring the true meaning behind La Batalla de Puebla in Kansas City and in a new way.

How Cinco de Mayo began and what it means

The origins of Cinco de Mayo — literally translated as May 5 — have been buried over the years.

Instead of a rich understanding of why today is celebrated in some regions of the United States and Mexico, the day has become widely known as a day to party. This was fueled, in part, by stereotypical marketing campaigns that gained steam in the 1980s, which boiled down the cultural holiday to tacos, Coronas and margaritas.

That’s what Sandra Enriquez, an assistant professor of history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, hopes to demystify for us.

Enriquez, a native of the borderland of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, is a social historian and also the director of public history at UMKC. She focuses on Chicanx and urban history as well as social movements.

The following is her contribution to better understanding what Cinco de Mayo’s celebrations signify for Mexican American citizens and for Mexicanos everywhere.

This timeline, provided by Enriquez, has been lightly edited for clarity.

Prelude: The aftermath of the U.S.-Mexico War in 1848 and the Reform War (a civil war) forced Mexico to borrow money from Spain, France and Great Britain. After decades of political turmoil, Mexico was bankrupt and faced an economic crisis. To regain control of the country, President Benito Juárez suspended payments to the European countries.

In late 1861, Spain, France and Great Britain sent military forces to Veracruz to demand Mexico pay its debt. Spain and Great Britain agreed to negotiate and retreated, but France had other plans. Napoleon III saw this as an opportunity to install a new regime in Mexico. The French military invaded Mexico and took control of several cities in early 1862.

The Battle of Puebla: French troops arrived in Puebla on May 5, 1862 with certainty they would win the battle. The Mexican army, led by General Ignacio Zaragoza, surprised and defeated French troops. This was an unlikely victory. At the time, France had one of the most powerful military forces in the world. French troops had better equipment and weapons and outnumbered the Mexican army. Although Mexico won La Batalla de Puebla (the Battle of Puebla), the French shortly thereafter captured Mexico City, and imposed Emperor Maximillian to rule Mexico.

U.S. holiday or Mexican holiday: According to David Hayes-Bautista, author of “Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition,” the holiday originated in Columbia, California, mere weeks after the Battle of Puebla. On May 27, 1862, news about the French army’s defeat in Puebla arrived in the mining town. Californio, Mexican and other Latinx miners who had immigrated to the state because of the Gold Rush broke out in celebration. They sang patriotic songs, delivered speeches, had toasts and even shot their guns to the air honoring the Mexican army’s victory

Following this spontaneous celebration, Latinx social and patriotic groups created the holiday. These organizations shaped the public memory of the Battle of Puebla as a representation of anti-imperialism, freedom and democracy.

Cinco Celebrations Boom: By the 1930s and 1940s, Cinco de Mayo evolved into a celebration of Mexican American culture, ethnic solidarity and self-determination in the United States. In Kansas City, Cinco de Mayo celebrations have been taking place in the Westside since the 1920s.

The corporatized Cinco de Mayo celebrations we know today emerged in the 1980s. As corporate interests have tapped into “the Latinx consumer market,” the holiday’s origin has been lost. While the beer and alcohol industries have turned Cinco de Mayo into a drinking holiday and as an opportunity to stereotype Mexican culture, communities across the U.S. continue to observe the day as a celebration of Mexican American identity and heritage.

A mural with a Latino flavor on a brick wall shows a Hispanic woman extending her right hand holding an orange and yellow flower on a blue and green background with more flowers behind her.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A mural on the old Plaza Parkway Building near Mill Creek Parkway and 46th terrace depicts the work of Isaac Tapia and Rico Alvarez.

Here are 5 ways to honor the day

Attend Guadalupe Centers’ 100th Annual Fiesta, what they call the “original” Cinco de Mayo party in Kansas City, which began in 1922. You can find more information here. Or support Guadalupe Centers’ mission and programs here.

Take an Itra Icons Mural tour: The works of artist duo Isaac Tapia and Rico Alvarez — who also go by Itra Icons — have been taking over Kansas City, one mural at a time. See their latest works on 18th and Walnut or near the Country Club Plaza entitled “Xochitl y Huitzilin,” honoring the ancient roots and history of Latinx ancestry. Follow their work and musing here on IG. 

Visit “La Onda,” a traveling exhibition of carefully curated works by local Latinx artists such as Kiki Serna, Chico Sierra and Cesar Lopez in Kansas City that tell the story of identity, migration and complex cultural ties to land and heritage. Find more information here.

Support Kansas City staple Mattie Rhodes’ new building reveal and check out a special exhibition entitled “CHICANO: Visions of Courage.” Click the link or support Mattie Rhodes social service programs here

Support a local Mexican-owned business by becoming a patron of one of the local wellness centers or business services. Or steep in traditional flavors and new interpretations of Mexican cuisine, whether it’s cafe de olla, a Mexican vegan burger (you read that right) or a torta de birria. Then head over to get a massage and take an urban hike — in English or in Spanish — to discover new parts of the city you never knew about.

Here are several curated options, thanks to submissions by Kansas Citians like you:

Lesley Reyes and her mom, Irma Hernandez, bring their story full circle at Ollama on Southwest Boulevard.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Lesley Reyes and her mom, Irma Hernandez, bring their story full circle at Ollama on Southwest Boulevard.

A few more ideas

In the vein of celebrating freedom and democracy, here are organizations that have a mission to empower the Latinx community in Kansas City through health literacy, education and more:

This story was originally published on Flatland, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Vicky Diaz-Camacho is Flatland's community reporter and project manager for curiousKC, a journalism-focused public engagement series housed at Flatland.
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