What Cinco de Mayo Actually Celebrates

What Cinco de Mayo Actually Celebrates
Photo: Sean Locke Photography, Shutterstock

Cinco de Mayo (literally “5th of May”) has a fascinating history, but I’m going to start with what Cinco de Mayo isn’t: It is not Mexican Independence Day. That is celebrated on Sept. 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 are referring to when you talk about it.

Cinco de Mayo before beer companies got ahold of it

Cinco de Mayo commemorates Mexico’s underdog victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The Mexicans were outnumbered two to one, but beat the French back thanks to the brilliance of General Ignacio Zaragoza. Yay! The French won the second battle of Puebla, and ended up taking over Mexico. Boo! But they only held it for three years, and then Mexico became independent. Yay!

Fired up about Mexican resistance to French rule, Mexican miners in California were the first to celebrate Cinco de Mayo back in 1863. It was also commemorated annually in the state of Puebla in Mexico with parades and battle reenactments too. But it wasn’t widely marked throughout the rest of Mexico, and it still is a way more popular holiday in the United States than South of the Border. In the 1960s, Chicano activists raised awareness of the holiday, especially among Mexicans in California, but Cinco De Mayo didn’t really “catch on” in a mass-consciousness sense until the 1980s. That’s when the beer companies got involved.

‘Drinko de Mayo,’ or: What happened when the beer companies got involved

In the 1980s, American corporations began to notice the growing number of Hispanic population in the U.S., and started marketing to them, hard. The Coors corporation declared the 1980s the “decade of the Hispanic,” and, with competing beer companies Anheuser Busch, and Miller, spent hundreds of millions advertising to this emerging market. These marketing companies started promoting the relatively obscure holiday of Cinco de Mayo, and the effort was clearly wildly successful. Much like St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish, in the United States, Cinco de Mayo became known as a day for partying and drinking with a vaguely Mexican theme. More recently, many cities in the US began holding Cinco de Mayo events that celebrate Mexican heritage and culture as opposed to only celebrating Mexican beer, food, and liquor.

What about white people celebrating Cinco de Mayo?

The fact that lots of white people celebrate Cinco de Mayo in 2022 America is a bit fraught. It is a mostly manufactured-by-marketers holiday, but Cinco de Mayo is also still explicitly Mexican, so it raises more questions than other recent holidays (like Star Wars day).

Cinco de Mayo began in California, and has always been celebrated more widely in America than Mexico. So is it a Mexican holiday or an American holiday? Both? Neither? There is so little “source material” behind it that you can’t really compare modern celebrations with the “true” version. It mostly didn’t exist in the U.S. until beer and snack companies called it into being, so who “owns” Cinco de Mayo? Who can speak about the “right” way to mark it?

I think most non-hispanic Americans view Cinco de Mayo as a catch-all “Mexico is awesome” day, where you visit your local taqueria and eat burritos and drink Dos Equis. This doesn’t seem like a terrible thing to me, and I’m sure the owners of Tacos Manzano down the street would agree. It’s perhaps akin to what drinking a Guinness on St. Patrick’s day was like 50 years ago: Yeah, it sucks to have your national identity related to getting drunk, but is it better to be ignored? Ture, hardly anyone celebrating May 5th has any idea where Cinco de Mayo came from or what it means, but I’m Irish-American and I have no idea what St. Patrick did either.

The Chicano activists of the 1960s wanted to spread awareness of the holiday. Their aim was more elevated than Anheuser Busch’s, but the corporate marketers did the lifting, making the holiday nationally known. While that hasn’t always resulted in the best portrayal of Hispanic culture, it seems like par for the course that a deeper message wouldn’t get through to typical Americans than “Mexicans make delicious food and drink delightful beer.”

I am extremely aware (and appalled) that so many of white people screw this kind of thing up so badly. Thousands of dorks will be wearing novelty sombreros and mustaches and sucking down margaritas in Vegas bars in this week, then going home to vote for anti-immigration candidates in the next election. Is this racist-because-we-were-always-like-this “awareness” a necessary part of the process of cultural acceptance in the United States? I suppose it eventually worked out for the Irish.

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