Columbia State Historic Park

Visitors mill about Main Street in Columbia State Historic Park in this file photo from July 2020.

A year after the first known celebration of Cinco de Mayo occurred in the Gold Rush town of Columbia in 1862, a group of 45 Latina women banded together to provide aid to those affected by the French-Mexican War going on at the time.

They called their group the Junta Patriótica de las Señoras de Sonora, which translates to Ladies’ Patriotic Assembly of Sonora, and they would hold Cinco de Mayo celebrations each year for a time to commemorate the Mexican Army’s victory over occupying French forces at the first Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Now, for the battle’s 160th anniversary on Thursday, another group of Tuolumne County women has come together to organize an event that aims to seize upon Columbia’s recognition as the birthplace of Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

The event runs from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday at Miner’s Hall in Columbia State Historic Park, with music to follow at the gazebo.

“As a proud female small business owner in Columbia, I feel a great kinship with the Latina  women who made sure that Cinco de Mayo was remembered and celebrated as a friendly,  unifying holiday,” Teresa Torbett, owner of Columbia Mercantile 1855, said.

Torbett is a member of La Junta de Mujeres, the group organizing and promoting the event, along with Barbara Balen, of the Columbia Area Advisory Council; Mercedes Tune, a consultant on cultural responsiveness and equity who lives in Sonora; and Constance O’Connor, a community advocate and Columbia resident since 1946.

O’Connor said she’s a personal friend of Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, a professor of Latino health and culture at the University of California, Los Angeles, who made the connection of Columbia being the location of history’s first known Cinco de Mayo celebration while researching Spanish-language newspapers from the Gold Rush era.

“As a past leader of the Central Sierra Arts Council and Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, I am so  excited to participate in the culmination of plans in the works since 2009 to recognize and  celebrate Columbia and its direct role in the significance of this important cultural and historical event in our community that is not generally known,” O’Connor said, adding that plans are in the place to make the event in the park permanent.

Balen and Tune penned a letter in February to Eduardo Rivera Pérez, the current mayor of Puebla, Mexico, that included a 2008 article written and researched by Hayes-Bautista and historian Cynthia L. Chamberlin tracing the holiday’s origin to the gold mining camps of Columbia.

At the event on Thursday, a response letter from Pérez dated April 20 will be read aloud in full in which he expresses gratitude for the group’s “willingness to establish this important link” to the “heroic act that enhances the pride and identity of Puebla and its inhabitants.”

“It is a great story, rich in a shared history of the spirit of community,” Balen said. “It is authentic, original, and it all began right here in Columbia.”

The 2008 article establishing the connection was originally published in CHISPA, the quarterly publication of the Tuolumne County Historical Society, and later became part of the basis for Hayes-Bautista’s 2012 book, “El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition.”

According to the article, the first spontaneous celebration of the holiday occurred in Columbia sometime in late May or early June 1862, after the San Francisco-based La Voz de Méjico newspaper sent copies of its May 27 edition that relayed the news of the unlikely victory over the better-equipped French three weeks earlier.

The article stated the Gold Rush was a time of great ethnic diversity for many Mother Lode towns, as prospectors and miners looking to stake out their fortunes poured into the area by the tens of thousands from places like Mexico, Central America and South America.

A later edition of the newspaper included a letter to the editor from a correspondent in Columbia, who went only by the initials A.M., that talked about a spontaneous celebration upon receiving the news, with firing salutes, singing, banquets and drinking, the CHISPA stated.

“By the first anniversary of its first spontaneous celebration in Columbia just three weeks after the original Battle of Puebla, the commemoration of the victory of the forces of freedom and democracy on Cinco de Mayo became institutionalized up and down California, and has been celebrated every year since,” the article stated.

Tune said the Latinos of Sonora and Columbia who had been living in the area for generations and immigrants who had recently come to the area for “gold fever” were determined to support the quest for both freedom and democracy by those battling the French in their homeland, as well as those fighting against slavery during the concurrent Civil War in their new country.

“Columbia, California, and Puebla, Mexico, were united in their causes for freedom and democracy, which gave birth to a new history in both countries,” she said. “The Sonoreans living in Columbia and Sonora exploded in jubilation and celebration at the news. Cinco de Mayo was born!”

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4541.