What Does Cinco De Mayo Really Celebrate?

Cinco de Mayo (literally “May 5th”) has a fascinating history, but I’m going to start with what Cinco de Mayo isn’t : it’s not Mexico’s Independence Day. It is celebrated on September 16 and is an important Mexican public holiday. Cinco de Mayo is not a national holiday in Mexico, and how important it is depends on what you mean when you talk about it.

Cinco de Mayo before the beer companies took over

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The Mexicans were outnumbered two to one, but repulsed the French thanks to the brilliance of General Ignacio Zaragoza. Hooray! The French won the Second Battle of Puebla and eventually captured Mexico. Boo! But they kept it for only three years, and then Mexico became independent. Hooray!

Encouraged by Mexican resistance to French rule, Mexican miners in California were the first to celebrate Cinco de Mayo as early as 1863. It was also celebrated annually in the state of Puebla in Mexico with parades and battle reenactments. But it has not been widely celebrated in the rest of Mexico, and is still a more popular holiday in the United States than south of the border. In the 1960s, Chicano activists drew attention to the holiday, especially among Mexicans in California, but Cinco de Mayo did not “catch” in the popular consciousness until the 1980s. Then the beer companies intervened.

Drinko de Mayo, or What Happened When Beer Companies Intervened

In the 1980s, American corporations began to notice an increase in the number of Hispanics in the US and began to actively promote their products. The Coors Corporation declared the 1980s the “Hispanic Decade” and spent hundreds of millions of dollars advertising this emerging market with rival beer companies Anheuser Busch and Miller. These marketing companies have begun to promote the relatively obscure Cinco de Mayo holiday, and the effort has clearly met with resounding success. Like St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish, Cinco de Mayo became known in the United States as a day of partying and drinking with a vaguely Mexican theme. More recently, many US cities have begun hosting Cinco de Mayo events celebrating Mexican heritage and culture, not just Mexican beer, food, and liquor.

Do white people celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

The fact that many white people are celebrating Cinco de Mayo in America 2022 is a little dangerous. It’s mostly a marketing-created holiday, but Cinco de Mayo is also still distinctly Mexican, so it raises more questions than other recent holidays (like Star Wars Day).

Cinco de Mayo originated in California and has always been celebrated more widely in America than in Mexico. So is it a Mexican holiday or an American one? Both? No one? There is so little “source material” behind it that modern celebrations don’t really compare to the “real” version. It basically didn’t exist in the US until the beer and snack companies called it into existence, so who “owns” Cinco de Mayo? Who can talk about the “correct” way to label it?

I think most non-Hispanic Americans see Cinco de Mayo as a universal “Mexico is Beautiful” day when you visit the local taqueria, eat burritos and drink Dos Equis. I don’t think this is a terrible thing, and I’m sure the owners of Tacos Manzano down the street would agree with me. Perhaps it’s like drinking Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day 50 years ago: yes, it sucks when your national identity is associated with drinking, but is it better to ignore it? Of course, it is unlikely that anyone who celebrates May 5 has any idea where Cinco de Mayo came from and what it means, but I am an Irish American and I have no idea what St. Patrick did.

Chicano activists in the 1960s wanted to draw attention to the holiday. Their goal was more lofty than that of Anheuser Busch, but corporate marketers did their best to make the holiday known throughout the country. While this hasn’t always resulted in a better depiction of Latino culture, it seems normal that a deeper message doesn’t reach typical Americans than “Mexicans cook delicious food and drink delicious beer.”

I know (and am shocked) that so many white people screw things up so badly. Thousands of assholes will wear trendy sombreros and mustaches and drink margaritas in Vegas bars this week and then head home to vote for anti-immigration candidates in the next election. Is this “racist-because we’ve always been” “awareness” a necessary part of the process of cultural acceptance in the United States? I believe it worked out for the Irish in the end.


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