Warmer weather, the beginning of summer and a funny little “holiday” called Cinco de Mayo mark the beginning of May, and this year will be no different. As someone who in the past was always looking for a reason to drink, Cinco de Mayo was a fun holiday for me. After I moved to Mexico, though, I learned how little Cinco de Mayo actually has to do with that country. Getting sober helped me realize how the once-themed “Celebrate Mexico” holiday took a nosedive into an American drinking event. So what is Cinco de Mayo, exactly, and how did it become yet another American drinking holiday?
The History of Cinco De Mayo
Cinco de Mayo (which means “the fifth of May” in English) is most often mistaken for Mexico’s Independence Day. In reality, Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, while Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, a victory of the Mexican army over the invading French forces of Napoleon III.
When I moved to Mexico in 2009 I was shocked to find out that nobody celebrates Cinco de Mayo there. I was the foolish American asking Mexicans, “But what do you mean? It’s a Mexican holiday!” The only place in Mexico where Cinco de Mayo is observed is in Puebla, the state in which the battle occurred. (Though this doesn’t stop tourist cities, like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, from celebrating with fiestas of their own, complete with plenty of tequila and beer.)
Mexican Americans adopted the holiday in the 1950s and 1960s, during the time of the “Good Neighbor Policy,” an effort by the U.S. government at that time to reach out to neighboring countries. Since then, it has been a bridge between two cultures. Mexican Americans living in the U.S. use the holiday as a chance to show their patriotism and pride for Mexico; and it’s given Americans a chance to learn about Mexican culture and the importance of the Latino population.
From Honoring to Drinking
At least that’s how it used to be. Slowly but surely, Cinco de Mayo has transformed from a festive Mexican celebration to a semi-official American drinking holiday. This isn’t the first cultural holiday hijacked by U.S. alcohol companies and others: St. Patrick’s Day was once an Irish celebration too. (Here’s a post I wrote about that, in fact.) It’s not uncommon to hear the day referred to as “Cinco de Drinko.” Cinco de Mayo events are very often sponsored by beer companies, after all. In the early 1980s, Anheuser Busch and Miller each formed Hispanic marketing departments and started sponsoring these events, according to BusinessInsider.com. In 2009, beer companies spent $171 million on Spanish-language advertising. Everywhere you look now, Cinco de Mayo is about tequila and Mexican beer, with the occasional sombrero thrown in. If that’s all America thinks Mexico is, they’re sorely mistaken.
It makes me sad to think that a holiday whose original purpose was to celebrate the beautiful country of Mexico and its heritage has turned into another blackout-fueled drinking fest for people looking to party. I was happy to find a group who shared the same opinion when I stumbled across the San Diego Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo Coalition, a project of SAY San Diego (Social Advocates for Youth). This organization’s focus is on drug and alcohol prevention advocacy through a culturally relevant approach. Part of this effort includes the Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo (“con orgullo” means “with pride”) Festival, an event held annually in San Diego, California, on May 5.
The group’s flyer for this year’s festival states, “The Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo Campaign is an effort to stop the exploitation of the Cinco de Mayo holiday by the alcohol and tobacco industries. We promote the true meaning and significance of the holiday and the Latino culture. By sponsoring alcohol- and tobacco-free events such as this festival, we reduce the underage drinking, smoking, violence and other crimes related to heavy alcohol consumption.”
I feel enlightened on both fronts now that I am sober and educated about Mexico. Cinco de Mayo has a totally new meaning for me and I hope it does for you too.