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How Cinco de Mayo’s Meaning Got Lost

My quarantine morning routine consists of about an hour of lounging on my phone every day. I check my messages, catch up on emails, and spend some time browsing the trending section of Twitter. Enter: Tuesday, May 5th. Trending: Cinco de Mayo, Cinco At Home, Taco Tuesday, and of course, the resurgence of the dreaded Cinco de Drinko. Sigh.

I’ve struggled my whole life with cultural identity. As someone who is half-Mexican, it’s taken me a long time to feel “Mexican enough” in a country where the culture is reduced to stereotyped holidays and weekly Tex-Mex dinners. I don’t have a big familial connection to Mexico and I didn’t grow up speaking the language. I’ve always identified myself as Mexican-American (because I am) but it’s never been an easy or prideful statement (because of how little I knew of the culture, apart from American “celebrations” of it).

In an attempt to understand more about my cultural background and rich heritage, I’ve immersed myself in my family’s culture. Through my journey of wanting to understand where I came from, I’ve learned one thing more than anything else: Mexican-American and Mexican cultures are not celebrated the way they’re assumed to be on Cinco de Mayo.

Cinco de Mayo ≠ Mexican Independence Day

This is a common misconception about the fifth of May that is so easily resolved by a quick Google search. Contrary to weirdly-popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is not the celebration of Mexican Independence—that’s September 16th. Cinco de Mayo is the holiday celebrating a major Mexican military victory over France in 1862. At the time, France (under Napoleon III) was attempting to establish a monarchial rule in the country, facilitating France’s grip on North America. To put things in a broader perspective: colonialism was the word in the late 1800s. France’s desire to establish a monarchy in Mexico was a small part of a larger effort by Napoleon III.

The Battle of Puebla was a successful military battle waged against France on May 5th, 1862. Led by Ignacio Zaragoza and a ragtag group of 2,000 men, the Mexican troops solicited a French retreat from the town of Puebla. In terms of military strategy or bloodshed, the battle isn’t particularly significant. The Battle of Puebla does, however, symbolize the Mexican resistance effort against colonial and foreign rule. So, how did a holiday meant to celebrate an important, symbolic military win come to be represented as a day for drinking margaritas and generalizing the culture?

American Marketing and Mexican Beer

What is usually a low-key celebration in Mexico became a full-fledged holiday in America beginning in the 1980s. Cinco de Mayo was first celebrated in America in 1863 as a symbol of solidarity with Mexico. Up until the 1980s, Mexican-Americans used the holiday as a vessel to promote and appreciate Mexican culture. It started out as a prideful event, allowing the Mexican-American community to celebrate their heritage.

Mass commercialization hit the holiday hard in 1980 with the introduction of a Cinco de Mayo-themed ad campaign by Corona and Grupo Modelo. The ad campaign prioritized beer, distinctly Mexican beer, as a component of Cinco de Mayo celebrations, and that idea has only continued to garner steam. In a 2019 poll by NPR, only 22% of Americans reported knowing the origins of Cinco de Mayo. The holiday has morphed from a celebration and unification of Mexican-American culture and history to a bar-hopping celebration that retains little connection to the holiday’s original purpose.

It’s Not Cinco de Drinko

All that goes to say: Cinco de Mayo should not be an excuse to get blackout drunk. It’s a holiday with cultural significance, both in Mexico and America, and deserves to be remembered as such. The Mexican-American community is full of so many beautiful stories, businesses, and artistic contributions to America. The fifth of May is not a day to generalize Mexicans or confine them to the stereotypes of drinking and wearing serapes and eating tacos. Cinco de Mayo should be a day of appreciation for a culture so rich and integral to America, not a day to make a caricature out of people who struggle to even be accepted in America. The life that Cinco de Mayo has taken on in the United States could be such a beautiful one—if only it was given the respect and understanding it deserves.

Cultural appreciation is better than cultural appropriation.

Photo: Ricardo Esquivel via Pexels

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