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An Old American Tradition: Celebrating Mexican Independence Day

New America Media, New Feature, David E. Hayes-Bautista Posted: Sep 16, 2009

Celebrating Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16 is an old American tradition, one that stretches back nearly two centuries, including during the American Civil War. During that terrible period, two sister republics--Mexico and the United States--were fighting for their very survival. The idea of a democratic government, one that derived its legitimacy from the will of the people, was under fire. Crowned heads, claiming legitimacy from divinity rather than the ballot box, ruled most of the world.

By 1864, the U.S. Civil War had raged for nearly four years, and as Lincolns re-election approached, northerners who sympathized with the south (called "copperheads") were campaigning for former Union Gen. George McClellan on a peace platform. Their slogan was, Let the South go. Let them keep their slaves. Freedom and democracy are not worth fighting for. The price is too high.

In those dark days, who would stand up for freedom and democracy in America? Latinos, celebrating Mexican Independence Day in California!

The events were reported in La Voz de Mjico, a local newspaper of the day. At 9 a.m. on Sept. 16, 1864, the Latino community in the Gold Country town of Marysville, organized by Juan N. Leal, the president of the Marysville Junta Patritica Mejicana, gathered at the Mexican flag waving high atop the flagpole at the corner of Third and A streets. Astride their mounts, the Lanceros Mejicanos (Mexican Lancers), one of many Spanish-speaking military companies in California during the Civil War, sat upright in their saddles, resplendent in their elegant uniforms, awaiting the days celebration of freedom and democracy. The faint sounds of marching music floated through the air, grew louder, then finally the Marysville Band came marching into sight. Behind it were two more units of the California State Militia, all marching behind the stars and the stripes. Stiffening in their saddles, the Spanish-speaking lanceros saluted the English-speaking units, who returned the honors. Gunfire boomed, and the celebration was on.

Leading the procession of carriages and wagons filled with seoras y caballeros was a special one, carrying four women speakers, all Latinas. Candelaria Garca held a Mexican flag, Abelina Campos waved the Chilean flag, Maria Garca lofted the Peruvian flag and Carmen Wilson grasped the flag of the United States. The parade halted in front of the Marysville city hall.

With the flags of four American republics--Mexico, Peru, Chile and the United States--waving above, Carmen Wilson stepped forward and began her speech, on the topic of the American Civil War, nuestra guerra civil (our civil war). Far away in Georgia, Union troops had just battled their way into Atlanta, past the Confederate units that supported slavery. Wilson urged her listeners to support freedom and democracy by supporting the Union. Joining her on the stand, Candelaria Garca reminded the audience of the other great battle also raging, in Mexico, where French invaders were trying to kill democracy by placing the Emperor Maximilian I on an artificial throne. The theme of the day was clearly freedom and democracy.

The celebration included a lengthy afternoon picnic lunch, then another round of speakers in the evening.

Soured by this outpouring of support for Lincoln and the Union, some disgruntled copperheads hatched a plan to ruin the evenings event. As the program began, an English-speaking stranger, G.P. Granger, asked Leal if he could address the crowd. Not suspecting anything, Leal graciously allowed him to take the stand. Speaking in espaol quebrantado (literally, broken Spanish) Granger at first complimented the crowd for supporting Juarez in his fight for freedom and democracy. Then, after denouncing Maximilian for attempting to impose a crown on the Mexican democracy, his confederate sympathies emerged: Granger claimed that Lincoln was as bad as Maximilian and wanted to make slaves out of the Southerners. He then began haranguing the crowd to vote for McClellan and his peace platform.

This affront to their defense of freedom and democracy was more than many Latinos and English-speaking Union supporters could bear. Some wanted to physically eject the interloper, who had taken brazen advantage of Mexican Independence Day to spout copperhead propaganda. Cooler heads prevailed, and an alternative plan quickly developed. They allowed Granger to continue his Confederate harangue, but as soon as he was finished, Leal leaped to his feet and led the crowd in cheers that rang through the night:

Vivan los Estados Unidos del Norte:(Hurray for the United States of the North)

Viva el Presidente Lincoln

The cheers rang loud and clear. Then they shouted:

Viva Juarez

Viva Mexico

In the face of such an overwhelming show of patriotic support for Lincoln and the Union, the copperhead Granger put his tail between his legs and slinked away.

And that is why Mexican Independence Day should be considered a real American tradition.

David E. Hayes-Bautista, PhD, is professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. His most recent book is La Nueva California: Latinos in the Golden State, (University of California Press, 2004).

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