By Adam Tokarz
To the casual observer, Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo holiday signifies little more than an excuse to down a few ice-cold cervezas, dance awkwardly to mariachi music, and wake up the following morning with a headache and a touch of Montezuma’s revenge. Ay, Dios mio!
Sadly, its historical significance is all but lost on the majority of Americans. In fact, in a terribly unscientific poll conducted by this freelance writer, 80 percent of survey participants wrongly identified Cinco de Mayo as Mexico’s Independence Day. (In fact, Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16th.)
So how did we turn a patriotic holiday celebrating the Mexican army’s improbable victory over a superior French force at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862 into an American drinking holiday?
In the same way St. Patrick’s Day morphed from being a day to attend mass and honor the missionary who’s credited with converting Ireland to Christianity in the 5th century to a booze-fueled spectacle fraught with green beer, Lucky Charm leprechauns, and more green beer: commercialization.
At DRAFT, we believe the best kind of imbiber is an informed one. As such, we’re tossing on our tweed jackets (elbow patches optional), stroking our imaginary beards (not optional), and snapping out the pointers to give you a brief history lesson on Cinco de Mayo, ethnic festivals in America, and beer.
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the courage and bravery of the Mexican peasant soldiers who gallantly drove back a much larger, more disciplined French contingent on May 5th, 1862.
Here’s the snapshot synopsis of how it all went down: French Emperor Napoleon III decided to expand his French territories in the Americas under the pretense of collecting an unfulfilled debt. He sent his infantry to Mexico to break up the current administration and insert his own puppet figurehead. But as the French troops marched towards Mexico City to topple the existing government, they were met with unexpected resistance from the Mexican militia in the city of Puebla. Out-gunned and out-manned by a two-to-one ratio, the Mexicans managed to stave off France’s forceful surge, displaying gumption and heart.
And while Mexicans today celebrate the victory in the state of Puebla and the surrounding Mexico City area with traditional music (think more mariachi, less Ricky Martin’s Menudo medlies), dance, and food, the holiday is not nationally recognized throughout all of Mexico.
Conversely, Cinco de Mayo enjoys widespread appeal in the US, from Mexican-Americans in Santa Fe to drunken frat boys in Tallahassee. In the US, Cinco de Mayo celebrations started popping up in the southwestern states in the latter half of the 19thÂ century, as Mexican-Americans sought to embrace their new biculturalÂ identity. It wasn’t long before corporations saw this ethnic festival as a unique opportunity to reach out to a growing Hispanic marketshare.
Jose M. Alamillo, professor at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA, wrote an article detailing the Cinco de Mayo festivals and the political/cultural climate of Cornona, California in the 1930s through 1950. In his piece, Alamillo observes local authorities leveraging the Cinco de Mayo festivals to help integrate the Mexican-American citizens into the community while also generating tourism dollars through corporate event sponsorships. Alamillo writes, “By tapping into the cultural traditions and nationalist ideologies of Cinco de Mayo, corporations attempt[ed] to enter the largely untapped… Hispanic market.”<
This movement of segmented ethnic marketing was picked up quickly in the beer world, where corporate breweries climbed aboard the Mexican cultural bandwagon, using traditional Mexican icons and popular ethnic imagery in their marketing campaigns. In 1983, Coors Brewing Company bought billboards naming Coors’ “the beer of the Decade of the Hispanic.” (At press time, the Goonies cast could not be reached for comment.)
The most popular beer by far was Groupo Modelo’s Corona, which entered the United States in the late 1970s. After disappointing initial sales, Corona substitutedÂ brown bottles for clear longnecks, the brand’s now-signature look and a staple for Mexican beers. When they reintroduced their brand to the southwest, sales skyrocketed and Groupo Modelo pressed onward, widening their appeal to a national audience. Sales rose nearly 700 percent from 1984 to 1986, when 12 million cases of Corona moved quicker than Salma Hayek in Desperado. (The Mexican-born actress had a mean draw but a lovely figure.)
And while some have found fault with beer conglomerates, claiming they trivialize the ethnic heritage of the Mexican festival and promote alcohol abuse and excessive drinking, like Tecate’s “Let’s Party” theme or Corona’s infamous campaign with the sombrero-adorned parrot and the slogan, “Drinko with Cinco,” others are encouraged by America’s acceptance and integration of foreign cultures into the mainstream.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the U.S. have fallen under the same scrutiny. Guinness was taken to task by The Marin Group, an alcohol watchdog faction, over one of their St. Patrick’s Day marketing campaigns depicting two adults running downstairs on Christmas morning to find wrapped cases of Guinness. According to the group, this “appears to condone irresponsible drinking, in this case large quantities of beer in the morning. It also defies still another provision that says Diageo [Guinness’s parent company] ads will not use any image or symbol that appeals to underage youth. One can hardly imagine an image with more appeal to youth than the excitement of Christmas morning.”
And it’s not just The Marin Group railing against beer conglomerates. Groups like Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo Coalition (“Cinco de Mayo with pride”) have formed to “reclaim cultural celebrations — such as Cinco de Mayo — and cultural symbols from the alcohol industry.” The group organizes popular alcohol and tobacco-free celebrations with traditional dancing and food, much like the traditional, low-key Cinco de Mayo celebrations found in Mexico.
And, to steal a line from comedian Jerry Seinfeld, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Still, we here at DRAFTMag.com — while completely respecting the integrity and position of the coalition — feel that you can have it both ways: a respect and cultural appreciation for ethnic festivals like Cinco de Mayo, while celebrating and enjoying responsible cerverza consumption.
As our great grandfather always said, “Everything in moderation.” (Except when it comes to Salma Hayek, of course; it’s an implied caveat to the rule.)
No matter which side of the discussion you ultimately come down on, we hope we’ve provided you with some cultural food for thought. And to wash down those tasty historic tidbits and in remembrance of the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo, we’re raising our glass to Mexican General Ignacio Zaragoza SeguÃn for his brave and stunning upset of the French in 1862. Salud!