My family and I didn’t do anything to celebrate Cinco de Mayo (May 5) earlier this month. While we saw advertisements for cultural celebrations and festivals and promotions being provided by a number of businesses, it was just another Sunday for us. We did talk about the significance of the day with our children, not only because they are Latinas, but also so they could understand why everyone around them at school, on the radio and on television was talking about it. The larger point is to highlight the importance of ongoing discussions with family, friends, and community members about history, cultural observations and their relevance today.
Many in the United States often mistake Cinco de Mayo for Mexican Independence Day. Mexico’s independence, however, is celebrated on Sept. 16. It was on that day in 1821 that Miguel Hidalgo, a priest, implored Mexico to revolt against Spain. In fact, Cinco de Mayo is not widely celebrated in Mexico. The day is almost exclusively recognized in Puebla, a city south of Mexico City, because it commemorates the 1862 victory over France in the Battle of Puebla. It was a relatively minor but symbolic battle because a small Mexican army defeated a larger occupying force. Five years later, Mexican troops had driven France from the country.
While scholars acknowledge that Cinco de Mayo has been celebrated in California continuously since 1863, the day became a part of the developing Chicano movement of the 1940s. Many Mexican American activists pointed to Cinco de Mayo as a point of pride. Over time, it seems this message has been lost. By the 1990s, most of the public discourse about the day had been refocused on it as a time to consume imported beer, tequila and Mexican food.
Many people attribute the transformation of the day from a point of cultural pride to a commercial endeavor to business efforts. For example, in 1989 the San Antonio-based Gambrinus Group, the regional importers of Corona and Grupo Modelo, launched a Cinco de Mayo-themed ad encouraging Mexican Americans already celebrating the holiday to make it a priority on this day to drink Mexican beer.
The campaign was extremely successful. The Nielsen research firm reported that in 2013 Americans bought more than $600 million worth of beer for Cinco de Mayo, more than for the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day. Later reports have shown that tequila and salsa sales have followed these trends and continue per the 2017 report. Even more, Americans now consume more tequila than people do in Mexico. According to an article by Joel Millman of The Wall Street Journal, the difference in spending for Americans on a normal weekend compared to a holiday weekend can be as much as $500 million, so making a big deal out of Cinco de Mayo is good for business. We can see similar patterns around holidays like St. Patrick’s Day.
While the number of official celebrations of Cinco de Mayo has increased steadily over time, from about 120 in 1998 to more than 150 in 2006, I can’t help but wonder if folks know what they are celebrating. Common Google searches about the day this year included questions like, “Is Cinco de Mayo Day of the Dead?” So, while I’m happy to see that Latino heritage is gaining recognition, I would also like to feel that the recognition is substantive and respectful. This can be difficult for people who never otherwise engage in Mexican culture. Even good intentions can fall into stereotyping that includes sombreros, maracas (which originated in South America not Mexico), and speaking in an accent.
David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, called Cinco de Mayo a “fake holiday recently invented by beverage companies.” That may be true, but things can change. We can refocus on the cultural observance of the day. Respecting cultural values means appreciating them — and this definition assumes a basic level of knowledge about people, history and events that does not seem to exist broadly. So, let’s learn together, and then we will truly have something to celebrate. Frankly, I don’t mind folks drinking a Corona or a shot of tequila, or eating a few tacos. But as we do that, can we think about the roots of this day? Acknowledging the proper historical context and respecting the people who carry cultural celebrations forth are not mutually exclusive to throwing a party. I just think you can consume Mexican products and honor Mexican culture and Latino communities at the same time.
Jessica L. Lavariega Monforti is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at California Lutheran University.