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Cinco de Mayo: A Minor Mexican Holiday Turned Major American Drinking Day

In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is a day synonymous with tequila, recurring ethnic and culturally charged controversies, and more tequila. Long regarded by Americans as the boozy day in which both we and Mexico celebrate the independence of our neighbor to the South, many might be surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo is neither Mexican Independence Day, nor is it celebrated by many Mexicans.

In reality, Mexican Independence Day falls on September 16th, the date when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest often referred to as Father Hidalgo, made the first call for independence in a famous speech that has become known as the ‘Cry of Dolores.’ According to Mexican folklore, on the night of September 15th, Hidalgo ran into a parish church in the town of Dolores, rang the bell to summon the town’s inhabitants, and declared that they needed to revolt.

Though Hidalgo died before Mexico’s independence from Spain was finally realized more than a decade later, he is remembered as the figure who set the rebellion in motion. Every year, his legacy is commemorated in a reenactment speech given by the President from the National Palace in Mexico City.

As said by Elena Albarrán, associate professor of history at Miami University, “Independence commemorates the beginning [of the struggle]…in this case, you celebrate the moment of insurgency, the possibility, and the hope.”

What Really Happened on Cinco de Mayo?

That’s what actually happened on Mexican Independence Day, but what about Cinco de Mayo? In reality, Cinco de Mayo didn’t occur until more than fifty years after Hidalgo’s cry for independence, and it was a battle against French imperialism, not the Spanish monarchy. In 1862, the French empire, headed by Napoleon III, was largely considered to have the most powerful military in the world. Thus, when the French colluded with a small group of Mexicans to put a European prince called Maximilian on the Mexican throne, it looked like it would be an easy conquest. What Cinco de Mayo celebrates is the unlikely Mexican win at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862, when smaller Mexican forces defended the city from thousands of French invaders on their way to the nation’s capital. It was the opening battle of a war, where ‘Mexico as a young nation rallied to defend itself,’ says Raul Ramos, Associate Professor of History at the University of Houston.

It was a big win, but outside of Puebla, it ultimately wasn’t assigned much historical significance, and it has never been celebrated on a large scale in Mexico. For Mexicans living in the United States during the American Civil War, however, the victory in Pueblo had added meaning. The French defeat was seen as a blow against the Confederacy, which was supported by the French during the Civil War. The David and Goliath story gave hope to Mexican-American residents of California, Oregon, and Nevada who, like Mexico’s president, backed the Union.

From A Victory in Puebla to a Day of Drunken Debauchery

For many years following the victory at Puebla, Cinco de Mayo was celebrated by Mexican-Americans, but as more and more of the generation who had lived through the historic event began to die off, the fervor around the Mexican win began to fizzle. By the early twentieth century, outside of a few small communities in California, the day had been largely forgotten.

Then, in the 1940s, during the rise of the Chicano civil rights movement, Cinco de Mayo saw a revitalization – it became a day for celebration and cultural pride, eventually crossing the border from California into Latino communities across the United States. In the 60s and 70s, at the height of the Chicano movement, cash-strapped groups started looking for sponsors in order to put on Cinco de Mayo celebrations in their communities. Enter the liquor companies.
Companies like Miller and Anhuerser-Busch saw the celebratory nature of the day as an opportunity to capitalize. For the first time, the companies developed Hispanic Marketing departments. They began to sponsor Cinco de Mayo parties and advertised heavily, eventually expanding beyond Spanish-language advertising to promoting Cinco de Mayo as a nation-wide day for drunken debauchery. By 1998, there were more than one-hundred and twenty official U.S. celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, and the largest Cinco de Mayo party in the world was the Fiesta Broadway in Los Angeles, which, throughout the 90s, attracted annual crowds of around 500,000 people. Meanwhile, in Mexico itself, the general populace continued to assign little to no significance whatsoever to the day.

With marketing campaigns that nicknamed the day ‘Drinko de Mayo,’ or ‘Corona de Mayo,’ some Latino communities began to take offense, charging that such campaigns trivialized the sacrifices made by Mexicans at the Battle of Puebla and degraded the historical significance of the holiday. At a 1989 Cinco de Mayo party sponsored by Anhuerser-Busch, a riot broke out. Latino activists began accusing the company of ‘pushing a legalized drug upon our community.’

More recently, organizations like Cinco de Mayo Con Orgullo – Cinco de Mayo with Pride – which works to create and support alcohol-free Cinco de Mayo celebrations across the country, have begun to crop up. In 2016, the #reclaimcinco movement emerged, in an attempt to encourage people celebrating Cinco de Mayo to do so respectfully. The movement asks celebrators to do four things: educate themselves on the true history of the day, support authentic Mexican businesses, celebrate in a way that is respectful to Mexican people (i.e. without using costumes or fake accents), and donate to organizations working for immigrant rights.

In 2013, people in the United States spent more than $600 million on beer for Cinco de Mayo, exceeding the amounts spent for St. Patrick’s Day or the Super Bowl. Like Black Friday or Cyber Monday, Cinco de Mayo has become a poster-child for the successes of large-scale marketing campaigns. But unlike the two shopping days following Thanksgiving, Cinco de Mayo is an actual holiday with a great deal of historical significance and should be treated as such. In fact, using Cinco de Mayo as an opportunity to honor the shared heritage of Mexico and the United States while respecting Mexican people – well, I’ll drink to that.

Janet Barrow writes about the places where language meets history, culture, and politics. She studied Written Arts at Bard College, and her fiction has appeared in Easy Street and Adelaide Magazine. After two years in Lima, Peru, she recently moved to Chicago.

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