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.

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