The Texas Hero of Cinco de Mayo: Ignacio Zaragoza, and the Origins of the Celebration
Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the U.S., while broadly popular, are often divorced from the true origins of the holiday. Many mistakenly assume that it commemorates Mexico’s Independence from Spain (that day is September 16), or that May 5th is a major national holiday in Mexico that made its way to the U.S. with Mexican immigrants in more recent decades. In fact, Cinco de Mayo has a storied borderlands history. It has been celebrated since the mid-nineteenth century in California, Texas, and other southwestern states, and today it remains a primarily U.S.-based phenomenon. Texans have a particular reason to celebrate — the victorious Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza was a Texan by birth, whose family history in Texas can be traced through General Land Office records.
Few Mexican locales outside of the central-eastern city of Puebla celebrate Cinco de Mayo. There’s a good reason for hyper-localized celebration in Mexico: the holiday commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla, in which the Mexican republican army achieved a stunning, underdog victory against invading French forces. Locals quickly seized upon the victory at Puebla as a symbol of resistance in the face of European imperialism. Interestingly, though, poblanos (people from Puebla) were not the only ones celebrating.
American celebrations of Cinco de Mayo can be traced to as early as 1864, just two years after the battle, when Mexican-American civic associations (juntas patrióticas) in California organized festivities to commemorate the victory at Puebla, an event which for them signified Mexican national pride and the hope for the triumph of freedom over tyranny more broadly. Communities in South Texas soon followed California’s lead, apparently picking up the celebration from their borderlands sister-cities in Mexico. In fact, a quick search through the rich collection of historic newspapers on the Portal to Texas History reveals celebrations in El Paso, Laredo, and San Antonio as early as the 1880s and 1890s. Moreover, even Texans outside of Tejano-majority communities on the Rio Grande knew something of the origins and meaning of the celebration. For example, a correspondent for Fort Worth’s daily Gazette informed its readers on May 5, 1886, that Mexico was celebrating the anniversary of the victory over the French, and that “the entire city of Paso del Norte [El Paso] just across the Rio Grande is indulging in a grand jollification with a long procession, a firing of artillery, and a big ball to wind up with to-night.”
Like the stories of many Texan families, Zaragoza’s can be partially traced through records in the Texas General Land Office’s Spanish Collection. Zaragoza was born in La Bahía de Espiritu Santo (near present-day Goliad) in March 1829. His mother, María Teresa de Jesús Seguín, was a member of the prominent Bexareño family whose relatives included Erasmo and Juan N. Seguín. Ignacio’s father, Miguel Zaragoza, was a military man from Veracruz who had met his mother while stationed with his infantry regiment at Béxar in 1825. By 1830, Miguel received a promotion and, to better his family’s lowly financial status, developed a plan to obtain the rights to Texas land. Under Coahuila y Texas’s state colonization law of 1825, native Mexicans could purchase up to 11 leagues (roughly 49,000 acres) of vacant land from the government for a fee of around 100 pesos per league.
In August 1830, when the future Cinco de Mayo hero was only one year old, Miguel Zaragoza requested that the state government sell him the allowable limit of eleven leagues of land in the vacant tracts of the Department of Texas so he could get into the farming and ranching business. Despite concerns that the lands requested lay in the restricted Border-Leagues Reserve, Zaragoza’s request was approved and surveyed in seven separate tracts on the Red River near Caddo Lake. The Constitution of the Republic of Texas eventually nullified the grants on the basis of their location in the prohibited border reserve; however, by that time the Zaragoza family was firmly established on the Mexican side of the border. 
Zaragoza’s son, Ignacio, followed in his father’s military footsteps but managed to escape the obscurity and poverty that plagued the former. Educated in Matamoros and Monterrey, Ignacio rose to prominence in the 1850s as a partisan of the liberal statesman Benito Juárez. Enlisting in Monterrey’s National Guard battalion in 1852, Zaragoza fought against Santa Anna during the liberal Revolution of Ayutla of 1854. Emerging triumphant in 1856, liberals under Juárez’s leadership immediately undertook a far-reaching set of reforms meant to consolidate Mexico’s status as a modern democratic republic. This so-called Reforma quickly drew the ire of Mexican conservatives and the high clergy, however, and a bloody civil war ensued. Zaragoza again rallied to the liberal cause, helping to defeat the conservative strongmen Miguel Miramón and Leandro Márquez and ascending to the rank of general. In 1861, President Juárez appointed him Minister of War, but he soon had to resign the post in order to lead the Army of the East against the French Intervention.
Conspiring with defeated Mexican conservatives and clergymen, the French had invaded Mexico in an attempt to install a European emperor aligned with Napoleon III. Juárez’s republican army mobilized to resist this imperialist onslaught. In the winter of 1861, the French gained a toe-hold on the Gulf Coast and began advancing toward the Mexican capital, but on May 5, 1862, troops stationed at Puebla under General Zaragoza repelled the invaders. It was a lopsided battle that would be remembered for generations to come.
Zaragoza’s victory sent the French back to the Mexican coast licking their wounds, boosting Mexican morale and delaying Napoleon III’s capture of the Mexican capital for a year. In a letter to the Ministry of War on May 9, Zaragoza wrote that “the arms of the nation have been covered with glory,” assuring the minister that “not for a moment did the Mexican army turn its back on the enemy during the long struggle that it sustained.” The French went on to depose President Juárez in 1863, installing the short-lived Empire of Maximilian of Hapsburg (which itself was overthrown by republican forces in 1867). Zaragoza succumbed to typhoid fever in September 1862, only four months after the Mexican victory. Yet the Texas-born military man had already secured his status as a national hero.
This heroic status transcended the U.S.-Mexico border, and Cinco de Mayo quickly became a manifestation of cultural pride with a thoroughly transnational pedigree. It has also proven particularly durable. The celebration evolved significantly throughout the twentieth century, reshaped especially by the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which adopted the holiday as a symbol of ethnic pride. Since midcentury, it has also spread across the U.S.
Yet outside of California, few communities in the U.S. can boast a deeper connection to Cinco de Mayo than Goliad. The city began to emphasize this connection in the 1960s, when the General Zaragoza State Historic Site was established in Goliad State Park, at the place believed to be Zaragoza’s birthplace. In 1973, Mexican-American civic organizations organized the Fiesta Zaragoza, an event that has become an annual tradition featuring conjunto music, ballet folklórico performances, and a barbecue cookoff. A statute of Zaragoza, a gift from the city of Puebla, was also unveiled at the state historic site in 1980. In 1990, the Texas Senate declared Goliad to be the “official place to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.” 
As advertisers realized its potential as a marketing device for a growing Latino market in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Cinco de Mayo celebrations in many places lost much of their historical meaning and specificity. Yet the Zaragoza Society and their supporters in Goliad can boast a long-running effort to keep Ignacio Zaragoza and his victory at Puebla at the fore of popular understandings of the holiday. In this task, they can also count on the digitized records of the Spanish Collection at the Texas General Land Office, which document Zaragoza’s family’s time in Texas and lend further nuance to the story of the Texas-born hero of Puebla.
This post was originally published in 2018, but 2019 is a particularly good year to celebrate Zaragoza’s 1862 victory, since the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has just finished renovating the historical exhibit at the Zaragoza birthplace in Goliad State Park. The exhibit will be open just in time for Cinco de Mayo.
In fact, the city’s name was quickly changed to “Puebla de Zaragoza” in honor of General Ignacio Zaragoza, who led Mexican forces at the battle.
David E. Hayes-Bautista, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
The earliest mention of Cinco de Mayo in the newspapers available via the Portal to Texas History is found in the Brownsville Ranchero, which on April 30, 1868, informed its readers that Mexicans were preparing to celebrate the anniversary of Zaragoza’s victory in Puebla. A few days later, the same paper reported on festivities in Matamoros. By the 1880s, other papers were reporting on Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Laredo and El Paso. By the early-twentieth century, San Antonio had picked up the holiday, which became an event that attracted Mexican-origin Texans from as far away as Houston. See The Brownsville Ranchero, May 6, 1868; Galveston Daily News, May 10, 1885; El Paso Times, September 8, 1886; El Regidor (San Antonio), May 2, 1891; The Houston Daily Post, May 5, 1911.
The Gazette, May 6, 1886.
Paola Morán Leyva, Ignacio Zaragoza(Mexico City: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2005), pp. 7–14; Federico Berrueto Ramón, Ignacio Zaragoza(Saltillo: Gobierno del Estado de Coahuila, Secretaría de Gobernación, 1996), pp. 17–32.
See Article 24 of the state law of colonization of 1825, reproduced in The Laws and Decrees of the State of Coahuila and Texas, in Spanish and English, trans. J. P. Kimball, with an introduction by Joseph W. McKnight (Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2010), p. 19. The law established different prices for different classes of land. Pastureland carried a price of 100 pesos per league, while arable land cost 150 pesos.
See the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, Schedule, Section 10, in H. P. N. Gammel, The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897, Vol. 1 (Austin: The Gammel Book Company, 1898), pp. 1081, and “An Act to Quiet the Land Titles within the twenty Frontier Leagues bordering on the United States of the North,” January 9, 1841, in Gammel, The Laws of Texas, Vol. 2, p. 641.
Ignacio Zaragoza, Puebla, to Minister of War, Mexico City, May 9, 1862, reprinted on Plano de la batalla que tuvo lugar el día 5 de mayo de 1862, en los suburbios de la ciudad de Puebla, entre las fuerzas mexicanas y las franceses, que fueron rechazadas al emprender el as alto del cerro de Guadalupe, formado de orden del Ciudadano Ministro de la Guerra, por la sección científica del Ministerio de Justicia y Fomento, conforme al croquis remitido por la Comandancia general de Ingenieros del Ejército de Oriente, Mexico City, Imprenta de Ignacio Cumplido, 1862.
“Goliad’s Cinco de Mayo celebration has ties to historic battle,”Victoria Advocate, published online August 30, 2014. Accessed on April 24, 2018, from https://www.victoriaadvocate.com/361mag/entertainment/goliad-s-cinco-de-mayo-celebration-has-ties-to-historic/article_fd89603c-1492-5519-9820-545cb9b1d43d.html.