Happy Cinco de Mayo! Though a favorite holiday of beer drinkers and Mexican culture enthusiasts, it has been falling under some heat in recent years, with celebrators being accused of “cultural appropriation” and all sorts of other terms to imply that this holiday isn’t for everyone to celebrate. Which frankly, doesn’t sit well with me. The United States is a melting pot of dozens of cultures, and I think we SHOULD celebrate and embrace the various cultures that make up our country instead of further dividing us by saying “only our race can do this.” However, I also think that if you are going to participate in the traditions of other cultures, you should take the time to learn about it and understand what you’re doing. You wouldn’t jump out of an airplane without learning how to work a parachute, right? And you should respect the people of that culture and treat them how you would want to be treated, much in the same way in that you wouldn’t want to piss off the pilot of the airplane you’re in. Mutual respect and understanding people, it’s not hard.
So that’s my social issue rant, cause I wanted to be clear that I love all people and all cultures, just in case anyone feels the inkling to misinterpret this post. Which the fact that I even need to say that really says something about the state of our society. But whatever. This post isn’t about that. It’s about beer! Or rather, why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo here in the US and how it became such a beer drinking holiday. Are y’all still with me? Cool.
Cinco de Mayo. We’ve all been taught since childhood that this is a Mexican holiday, and the commonly held belief is that it’s the Mexican Independence Day, aka their 4th of July. If that’s the case, why does the United States care to celebrate it? After all, other countries don’t celebrate our Independence Day. Well, the answer to that is because it’s not actually the Mexican Independence Day, and the holiday is actually a Mexican AND American holiday. Mind blown.
Understanding Cinco de Mayo requires a history lesson on two fronts. The 1860s was a tumultuous time in both Mexico and the United States, and the events of Cinco de Mayo were an important achievement for both countries.
Mexico background first. By the 1860s, Mexico was in serious debt. Years of fighting to gain their independence as well as fighting their own civil war left them unable to repay their financial debts to various European nations. When President Benito Juarez decided to default on their loans, Europe sent troops to collect payment. However, France was interested in more than just money. Napoleon III made plans to gain control of Mexico and install a French monarchy. So on May 5, 1862, 6000 French troops invaded the town of Puebla. They fought against 2000 Mexicans, and against all odds, Mexico was victorious, which was no small feat considering the French were considered to be the most powerful army in the world at the time. “Cinco de Mayo!!” became the battle cry, and President Juarez decreed that the day would be celebrated each year to commemorate their victory. There is still a huge celebration in Puebla every year on Cinco de Mayo. But France actually did end up gaining control over Mexico eventually and installed a French Emperor a couple years later, remaining in control of Mexico until 1867, thus why Cinco de Mayo isn’t a big holiday anywhere in Mexico except Puebla. Their fight was just beginning.
Meanwhile in the United States, we were in the middle of our Civil War. The Confederacy (the South) had been making advances and scoring tremendous victories against the Union by the time of Cinco de Mayo. To further their victory, the Confederacy began forming an alliance with France and seeking the aid of Napoleon III. According to historians, France planned to gain control of Mexico, and from there, assist the Confederacy. However the French defeat at Puebla gave the Union army the time it needed to gain momentum and strengthen their forces. Cinco de Mayo is considered to be a key turning point in the Civil War. Many believe that if the French had won the battle at Puebla, the outcome of the Civil War could’ve been much different. If the French had been able to combine forces with the Confederacy, the South could’ve possibly won the war, leading to the division of the United States and the continuation of slavery. So Americans have just as much reason to celebrate Cinco de Mayo as Mexicans do.
Early Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the US even included parades of people dressed in Civil War uniforms, and speeches were given about how the Battle of Puebla helped win the Civil War. It was first celebrated in 1863 in the United States as a show of solidarity with Mexico against French rule.These celebrations were especially popular amongst the Hispanic populations throughout the US who had both reasons to celebrate: the victory in their homeland and the victory in their current home.
As the Mexican population in the US began to grow (especially following the end of the Mexican Civil War) the popularity of this holiday has grown exponentially. Mexicans coming into the country joined their fellow Mexican-Americans in celebrating Cinco de Mayo without necessarily understanding why they were celebrating. Over time, it became more of a day to showcase and celebrate their Mexican culture and ethnic identity rather than commemorating a battle and remembering the events that allowed us to live the lives we all have today.
By the 1950s and 1960s, Mexican-American youths saw this holiday as an opportunity to build Mexican-American pride, and threw huge celebrations on this day, often sponsored by corporations. And so began the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo. As the Hispanic population continued to grow, businesses (particularly the beer industry) took advantage of the rapidly growing market and began targeting Mexicans in their advertising campaigns. Starting in the 1980s following the US Census Bureau introducing the term “Hispanic,” companies began pouring millions into Cinco de Mayo advertising, including sponsoring drinking events. Basically, they saw an opportunity to increase beer and alcohol sales and they took it.
Ok, I know that was a TON of info to digest. Stay with me, we’re almost done.
Why Cinco de Mayo? There are tons of battles to choose from that were fought both here and in Mexico that we could celebrate. The hype around this particular one can be boiled down to the increasing Mexican-American population and their integration into the United States as well as clever marketing schemes. This holiday gave Mexican-Americans an opportunity to celebrate their old and new life (remember the solidarity between Mexicans and Americans against the French?). As for the marketing, several factors come into play: the growing Mexican-American population, the fact Cinco de Mayo falls during a time without any other major holidays, it’s function as a kick-off for the summer partying and beer drinking season, the fact it’s a few weeks before the next big beer event (Memorial Day), and it’s easier to pronounce and rolls off the tongue better than the actual Mexican Independence Day (Dieciseis de Septiembre, which falls during September).
So there you have it. A fairly brief history of America’s favorite fiesta and how it became the beer-guzzling extravaganza it is today. So let’s all go out and drink some cerveza to celebrate the fact that the Mexican victory prevented the French from aiding the Confederacy, which resulted in the Union winning the Civil War, the United States remaining intact, and the abolition of slavery! Things I think we can all agree are a pretty major triumph for us all, yes? I say we should all celebrate Mexico for the role it played in helping our country (even though it was indirectly).
Do you have any favorite ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo? I love hearing new ideas of fun things to do or cool places to check out. Share your tips below!
“More Than a Fiesta: Ethnic Identity, Cultural Politics and Cinco de Mayo Festivals in Corona, California, 1930-1950,” by Jose M. Alamillo
“Latino History and Culture: An Encyclopedia,” by David J. Leonard and Carmen R. Lugo-Lugo
“How the Gringos Stole Tequila: The Modern Age of Mexico’s Most Traditional Spirit,” by Chantal Martineau
“How to Market to People Not Like You: Know It or Blow It, Rules for Reaching Diverse Customers,” by Kelly McDonald
“Why is Cinco de Mayo More Popular in America Than in Mexico?” by Brian Greene
“Why is Cinco de Mayo Celebrated More in the U.S.?” by Suzanne Barbezat