Almost twenty years ago I spent a few years living in Mexico and teaching English while exploring Mexican culture and learning Spanish. Shortly after my arrival, I was talking with a Mexican friend and realized that Cinco de Mayo was approaching. Excited, I asked him how the day was really celebrated within the country. Surely, it must be a huge celebration with eating and drinking and piñatas on a scale ten times grander than Cinco de Mayo in the US. However, I was surprised when he said that there were no plans at all for May fifth. It turns out, this day, though significant in Mexican history, is not the raucous-filled national day of celebration I was expecting. Cinco de Mayo, as I knew it, is actually an American creation.
In the US, Cinco de Mayo is synonymous with Mexican beer, margaritas, tacos, and burritos. Advertisers spend major money on marketing anything considered remotely Mexican by American standards and people take the opportunity to meet with friends to eat and drink at Mexican bars and restaurants both big and small. Many people are not aware that this day commemorates a somewhat significant battle in the city of Puebla during Mexico’s war with France in which Mexican troops pulled off an underdog win, complicating Napoleon’s plans to overthrow the Mexican government.
Mexican schoolchildren are taught about this battle as a symbol of national pride, but, outside of Puebla, there is little fanfare on the anniversary each year. It is much more widely celebrated in the US, often by groups of non-Mexicans who have no idea about the history and just want a reason to party with their friends.
One could look at these facts and point to Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the US as yet another example of the US commercializing a holiday, thereby extracting all profundity until all that is left is a band of Corona-drinking gringos hugging each other and saying, “I love you, man!” I have seen it referred to as a racist, offensive manipulation by beer distributors, much the way the greeting card industry hijacks our self-esteem on February 14th. I have heard people complain that the day only serves to perpetuate stereotypes and foment division.
But, is that all there really is to today’s Cinco de Mayo? Or, is there still a way to find meaning in this day?
If I try to reverse the situation, certainly, it would be strange if people all across Mexico donned baseball shirts, drank whiskey and ate hamburgers on, say December 26th (The Battle of Trenton), but I would not be personally offended if they did. I can’t imagine feeling personal injury from someone thousands of miles away eating a hamburger. And while it would be nice if everyone appreciated all the nuances of the day’s original significance, it would be unrealistic of me to expect the average Mexican to understand US culture beyond baseball and whiskey because they are not American, just as the guy in the fake mustache and sombrero celebrating Cinco de Mayo at Chili’s is not Mexican. While this guy may deserve an eye roll, I don’t think we can possibly expect that everyone in the world will want to and work towards understanding everyone else’s culture at a profound level, as if this were even possible. There will always be exceptions, but I am optimistic that the large majority of people who celebrate this day do so out of appreciation, even if they may be misguided in their execution.
I can also accept that culture is fluid and the collective meaning of things changes with time. In that process, some things are lost, but others are gained. Today’s Cinco de Mayo may not focus on the Battle of Puebla, but it still celebrates the cultural gifts our southern neighbors share with us, even if we never get beyond burritos and tequila. What’s more, if the pandemic lock downs taught us anything, it is that few things are more meaningful than gathering with friends and even strangers to share experiences. Humans need these interactions to thrive, in fact. Where some may see a shallow excuse to sell beer, I see an opportunity to participate in and enjoy a collective celebration in our community focused on a culture so rich that it would be impossible to do more than scratch the surface in one day. I would argue that this has the potential to bring us closer together rather than further apart.
Recently I revisited the topic of Cinco de Mayo with my now husband and asked him what he thought about it after living in the US for a while. In particular, I wanted to know if he found it offensive that the day has been reduced to tacos and margaritas.
“Offended?” he said, “Why would I be offended? Tacos and margaritas are amazing!”
I think most of us would agree.
Inspired by world travel, Erin Thompson Berriel has spent the last twenty years living, learning and exploring the intersections of American and Mexican culture. Nearly 20 years ago, she took her first trip to Mexico as part of a teacher training program. Not intended to be longer than six months, her visit transformed into a trip of a lifetime—meeting her husband and spending several years there before setting the path for them to move to the US and raise their two young boys. Finally fluent in Spanish, she now resides in Lawrenceville, New Jersey and is learning archery.