Today, like every year, Americans will descend upon their favorite Mexican bars and drink as many Coronas and Margaritas as humanly possible. Most of them will not understand the holiday they are celebrating, but they will happily wear a sombrero and take shots of cheap tequila.
Cinco de Mayo is a holiday often first introduced to American students in kindergarten. I remember my lesson about it, and I remember seeing depictions of panchos, tacos, sombreros and flag banners.
Aside from the fun activities in the classroom, it is uncommon to learn any more about the day and what it means.
In fact, many Americans are shocked to discover that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. The day actually commemorates a combat victory by the Mexican army over a French regiment in 1862 in the city of Puebla, in the south of Mexico.
The French had the strongest military force at the time, and for Mexico to defeat them was humiliating for the French and a momentous triumph for Mexico. Some sources indicate that as soon as the next year, there were celebrations in Puebla.
However, France would eventually win the war and occupy the area while they collected the debt owed to Napoleon III, making the whole ordeal -victory included- kind of bittersweet.
So how did the celebrations reach the US? Many Mexicans were living in the United States during the early celebrations. Mainly in states like Nevada, California, Utah, Arizona and Texas, which had been part of Mexico within most people’s living memory.
These early celebrations were mostly contained to Mexican towns and groups, but eventually the festivities were noticed by white Americans.
And like any holiday, there was a profit to be made, and American corporations wanted their piece of the cake.
In the 1980s, Cinco de Mayo began to get extremely popular thanks to Corona (Belgian owned) and Bud Light (American owned). They heavily commercialized the holiday, associating it with partying, and drinking beer. Products were directly marketed to Latino communities, and the Distilled Spirits Council of the US reports a nearly 50% increase in sales near the holiday.
While it is good to see a Latino holiday being made so important in the US, digging deeper reveals the true reason; capitalizing off of a culture.
In fact, Cinco de Mayo really is not that big of a deal in Mexico. It is not a federal holiday, so everything is business as usual, and outside of Puebla it may seem like just any other day.
This is not to say that it is wrong by any means to celebrate Cinco de Mayo! It remains an important day to many Mexicans, and even other Latinos who use it as a day to celebrate being who they are.
Like many cultural events, there is a thin line between appreciation and appropriation. So when you go out tonight, avoid sombreros and American beers. Instead, try to visit your local family owned taqueria and spend some time connecting with the community.