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Cinco de Mayo, Spanish for "Fifth of May") is a celebration held on May 5. The Cinco de Mayo 'celebration' (as opposed to the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862) is a uniquely American occasion with an origin that isn't Mexican at all. It all began in California when Mexican descent miners heard about the lesser-equipped Mexican army's defeat of the invading French military of Napolean III.California's 'native' Mexicans were happy with the news in that California was a free state; while France was planning to help the slave owning Confederates with their war against the Union. In the 1960s, Cinco de Mayo was reinvigorated by Chicano activists as an expression of their Mexican American cultural pride.

There was a tradition of gold mining in Mexico dating back centuries even then, and these Mexican miners were used to the hardships of mining. They were hardened, tough men. And they were often resented by many of the newly arrived Europeans and Americans – some of whom had fought in the Mexican American War just two years prior. They didn’t like having a vanquished enemy competing with them for the gold.

Starting in 1861, Mexico had been occupied by French forces sent to collect payment on debts owned to European banking interests. During this war against the occupiers, a small Mexican army defeated a larger and more experienced French force at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862.

This defeat of the French was greeted with much passion and joy in the mining camps – especially Columbia and Sonora.

That’s how the first Cinco de Mayo came to be commemorated in Columbia in May, 1862. But it didn’t happen on the 5th of May.

News traveled slowly back then, at about the speed of a horse. The Mexican miners did not hear of the Battle of Puebla until around May 27, when the news reached Columbia by way of San Francisco newspapers (which were carted across the valley and into the hills by stagecoach).

When the news did reach Columbia and Sonora, the Mexican miners were so elated they immediately shot off their guns, lit fireworks and began drinking and singing. Basically, they had something good to celebrate. Also, like most miners, they were likely always looking for any good excuse to crack open a bottle and make merry. Presumably, others joined in; a victory in Mexico was as good a reason to party as any other.

Today, we celebrate Cinco de Mayo with good spirits and food. This holiday, which remains mostly overlooked in Mexico, gives million of people across America – and especially in California – a reason to celebrate their Mexican heritage or that of their neighbors. We still don’t like wasting an opportunity for a good party.

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