Not Just Cerveza and Tamales: The Real Story of Cinco de Mayo

The misunderstood holiday of Cino de Mayo can get a bad rap; here's how to think about it the right way.

The savvy reader already knows that Cinco de Mayo is a fake holiday, a modest regional celebration in Mexico perverted by a German-American beer companies into a profit-driven stereotypical fiesta.

Well, I’m still going to be mixing up the margaritas. For all the inauthenticity of today’s celebrations, the real story behind Cinco de Mayo makes a compelling case for the holiday; in any case, the only replacement for a crappy stereotype is a shot of reality (with a slice of lime and some salt, please).

First: It’s not Mexican Independence Day, which is celebrated in September. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the 1862 victory of a Mexican army over French invaders at the Battle of the Puebla, a classic underdog victory for the scrappy locals that didn’t alter the eventual outcome of the war—which the French would win a year later, ruling the country for a few years until they were finally expelled (more on that later).

In Mexico, the holiday is celebrated in the state of Puebla as El Dia de la Batalla de Puebla, but it’s not really a national holiday, a fact that hints at the circuitous path the holiday has taken to garner its American reputation as an all-Mexico celebration.

That starts with historical context: The French, ruled at the time by Napoleon III, were ostensibly on a mission to recover money borrowed by the Mexican government, but saw an opportunity for conquest. The United States typically frowns on that kind of behavior toward our Southern neighbor (the Monroe Doctrine, AP History buffs?) but at the time, America was engaged in a rather nasty civil war that allowed the French carte blanche in Mexico.

Mexicans who had immigrated to the United States, and folks of Mexican descent who had remained in the American Southwest since it was Mexico, generally favored the Union over the Confederacy for reasons of morality, self-interest, and because of Napoleon III’s support of the Confederacy. When the French were defeated at Puebla, these Mexican Americans saw the victory as part and parcel with the larger fight against the confederacy and slavery, and an opportunity for cross-border patriotism, according to research by UCLA professor David Hayes-Bautista.

The link between the Civil War, U.S. patriotism, and the Battle of the Puebla continued among Mexican Americans, but with time the connections lost their salience, especially after a now-victorious Union government began intentionally "losing" military supplies to the hands of Mexican rebels, who threw the French out of Mexico for good in 1866.

Over the ensuing decades, new arrivals from Mexico found Mexican-American communities celebrating the Cinco de Mayo holiday, preserving it in California and the Southwest as a relatively small tradition that became more about anti-colonialism and the power of the little guy than a shared dislike of slavery.

Later in the 20th century, however, two powerful and distinctly American forces would seize on the holiday as an important cultural signifier: The civil rights movement and beer companies. Mexican-American civil rights activists in the Chicano movement saw the celebration as an opportunity to celebrate their heritage and increase expressions of Latino pride in schools; American beer companies saw Latinos as a growing market that demanded a tailored marketing plan. These are the two classic prongs of American integration—the demand for political rights and the reality of increasing commercial importance.

Thus came the rise of more ostentatious celebrations of Cinco de Mayo, with parades, baile folklorico, and, yes, plenty of drinking. As one cultural study of the holiday [PDF] drily notes, “it is believed that considerable numbers of both Mexican Americans and non-Hispanics seek out Cinco de Mayo events simply to party (pachangear).” Thus came the backlash, as some Mexican Americans saw the holiday (accurately) as inauthentic, and also as exploitive of their cultural traditions; meanwhile, non-Mexican Latinos resented being lumped into a Mexican-focused celebration.

“Americans have always loved to play the ethnic,” Gustavo Arrellano, the writer whose “Ask a Mexican” column regularly fields these kinds of questions from gabachos, told NPR last year. “You know, Cinco de Mayo is an excuse for everyone to be Mexican, to don the sombrero and a mustache, to get drunk, because hey, Mexicans do it all the time. … It's not unexpected, of course, it's part of the American way, but that doesn't make it somehow acceptable.”

Indeed, plenty of Cinco de Mayo celebrations this weekend will serve up a fairly insensitive take on Mexicans. Other ethnic celebrations—St. Patrick’s Day, Oktoberfest, Mardi Gras—do the same thing; as a Catholic of largely Irish and German descent, I feel Arellano’s pain when my people are painted as drunken oafs during our ethnic celebrations. To Arellano’s point, most German and Irish Americans don’t suffer from the same endemic racial discrimination these days that Latinos face, making the joke of Cinco de Mayo extra cruel.

Insofar as it is impossible to eliminate an excuse to party (or to stop beer companies and bars from advertising around it), folks who are frustrated with the current cultural impact of Cinco de Mayo should see it the same way that Chicano activists and Anheuser-Busch do: An opportunity to engage with and about Mexican Americans, a tool for positive integration as the fast-growing demographic establishes a bi-cultural identity that defies borders.

Rather than representing some distorted view of Mexican history, we should celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a distinctly Mexican-American holiday—a reminder that folks from Mexico are as much a part of the fabric of the United States as the Civil War.

Illustration by Dylan C. Lathrop

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