Rooted in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo Flowered in the U.S.

Rooted in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo Flowered in the U.S.
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It’s Cinco de Mayo, a holiday that originates with an 1862 Mexican military victory in the city of Puebla. The battle pitted Mexican Army defenders against a French expeditionary force dispatched to Mexico by Napoleon III. The outcome was not strategically important -- and the French captured the town a year later -- but it was highly symbolic to the Mexican diaspora in North America, most especially expatriates living in California.

When Spanish-language papers relayed word of the victory to Mexican miners laboring in the Mother Lode country 1,500 miles away, celebrations ensued with fireworks and fiery speeches. In Los Angeles, Mexican-American politicians who’d changed their citizenship without changing their addresses gave patriotic speeches.

California had been admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free state, and the context of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations was the Civil War between North and South. The anti-slavery movement in California had been an alliance of Northern immigrants and local Latinos, and the Battle of Puebla was as emotionally significant to them as the Battle of Bull Run was to Americans living in the East.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo historically was observed only in the state of Puebla. In California, it never really went away. Celebrated originally in places like Old Town San Diego or the sprawling barrio of East Los Angles -- or even the gold country town (now ghost town) of Columbia -- it grew gradually and incrementally. By the late-20th century, Californians visiting Mexico on that day would invariably express surprise that south of the border it wasn’t really much of a holiday at all.

As UCLA professor David E. Hayes-Bautista has noted, this raised an obvious question: “Why is it that Latinos in the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo so intensely, when it is not celebrated in Mexico?”

The answer, he says, is simple: “Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican holiday -- it is an American Civil War holiday, created spontaneously by Mexicans and Latinos living in California who supported the fragile cause of defending freedom and democracy during the first years of that bloody war between the states.”

Today it is much more than that. It is a day to celebrate the richness of the culture brought to this country by an array of Spanish-speaking pilgrims, wherever they came from Central America or South America -- or Mexico, Cuba, or Puerto Rico. Multinational corporations underwrite festivals. U.S. presidents pay homage. Cinco de Mayo is a day all Americans can share, if they like.

And coming, as it does this year, only two days after a modestly bred California horse won the Kentucky Derby, it’s also an appropriate time to remember the legendary horse trainer Laz Barrera, who had a connection to all those of places I mentioned -- Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. On this day 24 years ago, Barrera expressed hope after the post-position draw for the Derby that Cinco de Mayo might be a good omen.

His horse was Mister Frisky, winner of 16 straight races going into the Derby. A perfect 13-0 at El Comandante racetrack in San Juan -- and Puerto Rico’s1989 horse of the year -- Mister Frisky was sent that winter to California for the 3-year-olds prep races. He was a beast in the United States, too.

Going off at 3-5 with jockey Gary Stevens aboard in the 1990 Santa Anita Derby, Mister Frisky turned in a smashing performance. “Mister Frisky, smooth has silk … goes straight to the lead,” cooed Santa Anita race announcer Trevor Denman. “He’s full of run and loving it out here!”

Laz Barrera loved it, too, and when his speedy colt drew post position No. 5 a month later in Kentucky, Barrera blurted out “Cinco de Mayo.”

“We’ve got No. 5, and they’re running the race on the fifth of May,” he added in English. “Maybe there is something to that.”

But Mister Frisky would not win the Kentucky Derby. In fact, he would never win another race. It was also the last time Laz Barrera ever saddled a mount in the big race. He would be dead before another Derby -- or another Cinco de Mayo -- came around.

California horseplayers appreciated Mister Frisky because of his streak, his humble pedigree, and the fact that he raced near the front. He was a sprinter who won with speed and guts. Hispanic racing fans especially loved the horse, for reasons Laz Barrera could relate to himself.

After being foaled in Florida, Mister Frisky was bought at the Ocala yearling sale for $15,000 by a Puerto Rican construction engineer named Jose Fernandez. The horse was so popular in San Juan that 2,000 race fans showed up to wish the colt goodbye when he was shipped to California to compete with the best.

Barrera had come to the United States for similar reasons.

Lazaro Sosa Barrera grew up in the shadow of a Havana racetrack named Oriental Park, which he and his brothers frequented from the time they were old enough to talk their way through the gate. Five Barrera siblings -- Laz, Oscar, Luis, Willie and Angel -- became trainers, as did two of Laz’s sons. Fellow trainer Frank Wright once quipped, “If anybody ever took a survey, they’d probably find that 75 percent of the horses in the world are trained by a Barrera.”

In the 1940s, Laz had been a star trainer in Cuba before migrating to Mexico City and then to California. In the States, Barrera carved his name in horse racing history with his handling of Bold Forbes, another sprinter from Puerto Rico who few observers thought could handle the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance. But Barrera got the horse fit by having his exercise riders take the colt on long gallops instead of doing speed work at Churchill Downs.

Derby Day that year (1976) was on Barrera’s 52nd birthday, and on the morning of the big race, facing 2-5 favorite Honest Pleasure, the trainer told jockey Angel Cordero to go for the lead and keep it as long as he could. The rider and the horse did as instructed. In the stretch, Honest Pleasure was closing fast, but not fast enough: Bold Forbes held on for a one-length win.

After a third-place finish in the Preakness, Bold Forbes improbably won the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown and establishing Barrera as a skilled and resourceful trainer. “I can’t believe it even now,” Cordero said when Barrera died 15 years later, “that Laz got that horse to go that far.”

Barrera’s greatest achievement was guiding Affirmed to the 1978 Triple Crown, narrowly defeating rival Alydar in all three races. Affirmed was a showboat who, even after he retired to a Kentucky stud farm, would strut and pose for photographers and racing fans who came to pay their respects.

Patrice Wolfson, co-owner of the great horse, thought Barrera and Affirmed were peas in a pod. “One of the things I remember most about Laz was his kindheartedness,” she said when he died. “He had a love of people and a love of horses. He was such a good person that we always joked that he must have had some Affirmed blood in him.”

But the stress of racing took a higher toll on the high-strung trainer than it did on the poised chestnut colt. The year after Barrera won the Triple Crown, Daily Racing Form columnist Barry Irwin went to see the trainer at his home near Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. At one point, Irwin asked to see the 1978 Triple Crown trophy. In response, Barrera opened his shirt and showed his scars from heart bypass surgery.

Affirmed outlived Laz by nearly 10 years -- but no horse or trainer has won a Triple Crown since. And despite Barrera’s long-ago demise, he greatness remains enshrined. He was honored by the racing establishments in three countries: Cuba, Mexico, and the United States. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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