By: Allison Ford @ Divine Caroline
As Americans, we celebrate plenty of holidays that we don’t fully understand or appreciate. Here’s a pop quiz: What does St. Patrick’s Day actuallycommemorate? What is the real significance of Mardi Gras? Both festivals have legitimate origins, but nowadays they seem to be just two more excuses to dress up in funny hats and drink copious amounts of alcohol. Many people also love to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but how many of us know what the holiday really stands for?
Most Americans assume that Cinco de Mayo honors the day of Mexican independence, but that’s not correct. Far from being the Mexican version of our Fourth of July, it’s actually more like the Mexican version of Columbus Day, a holiday acknowledged by a few people but completely ignored by the majority. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, which took place on May 5, 1862, when Mexican forces, despite being badly outnumbered, defeated the invading French army. The battle would not even be considered historically significant except for the fact that the Mexicans’ underdog win became a great source of national pride, and because it marks the last time any foreign army invaded North American soil.
In Mexico, it’s considered a regional celebration, observed in the state of Puebla but not many other places. It’s not even an official federal holiday. But Americans have embraced Cinco de Mayo and everything that accompanies it—mostly the music, the food, and, of course, the cerveza.
Drink-o de Mayo
The holiday started to gain steam in the United States in the 1960s and ’70s. As an increasing number of Hispanic immigrants found their culture underrepresented in schools and in public life, people looked for ways to acknowledge and celebrate Hispanic heritage, and companies looked for ways to increase sales and promote their products. What started out as smallish gatherings in cities with large Hispanic populations turned into a new national holiday, celebrated with far more vigor in the United States than anywhere in Mexico. Some have suggested that Cinco de Mayo, rather than the real Mexican Independence Day (September 16), was presented as the more palatable of the two holidays to white Americans because it didn’t have the anti-imperialist sentiment that many Independence Day celebrations did.
Just as “everyone’s Irish on St. Patty’s Day,” beer companies encourage everyone to embrace Mexican heritage on this day, which results in consumers of all races and nationalities buying Mexican beer, liquor, and food. As the Hispanic population continues to grow, and more and more people develop a taste for Mexican food and beverages, the holiday becomes more mainstream. Corona Extra is now the number-one imported beer in the United States, and May 5 has become a recognized party holiday, just like St. Patrick’s Day or Mardi Gras, often with a buildup of a month or longer. Other companies have gotten in on the Cinco action, too, including Frito-Lay companies, with their salsa and guacamole products, and even American brewers looking to steal some of the market away from Corona, Tecate, and Dos Equis.
Growing Population, Growing Dilemma
People of Hispanic descent don’t always appreciate the blatant co-opting of their culture for the sake of partying and profits. Just as many Americans are offended by the commercialization of Christmas, some Mexicans feel that it’s disrespectful to use their nation’s history as a cheap excuse to hit up happy hour. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, a growing number want to take back the holiday, returning it to a celebration that focuses on family and culture, instead of on tequila and taquitos. As the holiday’s profile broadens, communities are becoming just as likely to see family-friendly festivals that include traditional music, food, storytelling, and dancing as they are to see out-of-control bar crowds.
Another growing concern is how the holiday’s marketers disproportionally target young Hispanics. The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth found that young Latinos and Latinas are exposed to more alcohol advertising than their adult counterparts. Major brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Coors even have entire divisions specializing in marketing to Hispanics. The result is that Hispanic adolescents are more likely to drink and get drunk than their peers of other racial groups, and they’re more likely to start drinking at an early age. The companies encourage young Hispanics to see the celebration of Cinco de Mayo (and its many inebriated revelers) as a matter of ethnic pride, and because Hispanics are the fastest-growing group of immigrants, it’s easy to imagine that this targeted marketing is a strategy to develop customers for life.
St. Patrick’s Day is the feast day for the patron saint of Ireland. Mardi Gras is a celebration that leads up to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the forty days of Lent. Cinco de Mayo may not be the holiday people thought it was, but it still honors an event of which Mexicans are rightly proud. Every holiday can be turned into an excuse to overindulge, but as you raise your glass in a toast this May 5, don’t forget that the celebration has origins that extend far beyond mariachi music and margaritas.