Cinco de Mayo… What are we really celebrating today?

Today, May 5th, most of America is celebrating Cinco de Mayo. You see promotional advertisements of it in televisions and some restaurants and liquor stores offering deals on alcoholic beverages. I first heard of this celebration in my first year living in Florida and I found myself asking some friends I was with what we were celebrating. I received three answers: 1. “Mexican independence” 2. “I don’t know but everybody’s drinking.” 3. A doubtful look paired with shrugged shoulders. For sure I knew it wasn’t Mexican Independence because that is celebrated in September so a big X on the first answer. And the next 2 answers… WELL… at that time, I just didn’t think about it further and realized that none of my friends or probably most of the people who were out drinking didn’t know why or what they were celebrating. It was just another reason to go out and drink more than the usual.

Today, I was at the hair salon owned by my hair stylist who is a Mexican American. It’s funny how seven years later, I find myself hearing the same question. This time, from one of the customers. She asks my stylist, “So what does Cinco de Mayo really mean to you and to Mexico?”

Angel of Independence in Paseo de la Reforma in Downtown Mexico City

My hair lady was born and grew up in the US and tells the customer that today is just another ordinary day in Mexico much to my disappointment. I had somehow expected a more exciting explanation why this is so widely celebrated in the US. Apparently, as she and her colleagues went on to explain, May 5th celebrates Mexico’s victory over the French and had nothing to do with Mexican independence. The latter is celebrated in September and that is when Mexicans really go all out drinking and celebrating.

So why is it such a celebrated day in the US from the west coast to the east? Supposedly, this was started by Mexican miners living in California upon hearing of the victory over the French. And about 100 years later, the celebration went on to spread across the country mostly to Mexican-American communities and was eventually largely popularized by beer companies to capitalize on it. I was a bit let down to find out that the real answer was not in any way of cultural or customary significance but just another hollow product of capitalism.

So there you go! In case anyone ever asks, or you find yourself wondering what you’re celebrating on May 5th while sipping on a margarita, here’s the answer!


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