Since it’s almost the beginning of May and in the U.S. that means Cinco de Mayo will soon be here, perhaps now is a good time to delve a bit into the background of this odd holiday. The label of odd comes here because of the ambiguous status of this relatively recent and quite fabricated holiday. Don’t misunderstand us: there’s nothing wrong with yet another reason for a pretty public celebration, or with giving a cultural minority an opportunity to express itself. Nor is there anything wrong with drinking tequila and sampling various kinds of enchiladas and generally eating guacamole on anything until you’re ready to burst. Nope, there’s definitely nothing wrong with those at all, scout’s honor.
A slight problem arises mainly when people are confronted with the question “What exactly is celebrated on the 5th of May, or during Cinco de Mayo?”, because this is where things usually become blurry and tricky. Many wrongly believe it’s the date when Mexico celebrates its Independence Day: while that may indeed be the most important patriotic holiday in Mexico, it is actually way later in the yearly span, on September the 16th. Even more, Cinco de Mayo isn’t really that much of a big deal south of the U.S. border; the main celebrations are held on American soil. Think that’s strange? The reason for this is that, actually, Cinco de Mayo is a sort-of “fabricated” holiday for the territory of the ‘states, meant to give the Mexican-Americans an occasion to celebrate their identity with pride. There is a smaller holiday in Mexico that the larger one in U.S. is based on, El Dia de la Batalia de la Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla), commemorating a victory against French troops, but that original holiday is so small-scale that it doesn’t really matter much. It’s not even celebrated in all of Mexico, but just one state and area, where the historic event occurred.
Since it’s such less of a big deal in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is now understandably a holiday with relevance for the Mexican-Americans first and foremost. It makes sense, actually, since they were the ones deeper into not always friendly territory, and needed to find a way of asserting their identity, preferably in a cultural and creative way. And what better way could it be than this wonderful collection of colorful parades, singing and dancing and all the spicy Mexican food and drinks you can muster? Probably none. It’s completely understandable how Cinco de Mayo rose to prominence so quickly in the U.S. The holiday existed since 1860, but it became popular sometime in the 40s, along with the rise of the Chicano movement (which emphasized a pride of one’s Latino identity).
But was the sudden popularity of Cinco de Mayo only related to the rise of the Chicano movement? Unfortunately, whenever there’s a celebration, there’s always some corporate interests involved, at least since the second half of the 20th century and to this day. Grand American companies that specialized in consumer goods like food and drink saw a major opportunity in capitalizing any holiday man can think of, and Cinco de Mayo was no exception. Especially a beer giant was involved in a bit of controversy about aggressively promoting its beverage on behalf of the Mexican holiday and community, but then again, it would be hard not to find a holiday that wasn’t capitalized upon in a similar manner.
The morale of this story, folks, if we’re permitted to suggest one, is that there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your Mexican food and drinks this upcoming May, even if they’re advertised by all-too-eager commercial interests, but a least let’s pay better attention to history. Taking part in the celebration is always nice and even a bit mandatory if we’re to be respectful to the minority celebrating it, but you know what would be even more respectful? Not confusing Cinco de Mayo any more with their Independence Day, for instance. That being said, enjoy the fiesta!