Cinco de Mayo is Not a Mexican Fiesta

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A young dancer watches a Ballet Folklorico performance during the Family Pride Fair. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

Michael Cirlos for the Rivard Report

A young dancer watches a Ballet Folklorico performance during the Family Pride Fair.

Guacamole, mariachi music, maracas, tacos, and humongous margaritas are all commonplace for Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States, a day many believe commemorates Mexico’s Independence Day.

Talk show hosts, newscasters, and TV chefs are known to don oversized sombreros or wear fake mustaches while they advertise cooking some yummy “Mexican food” or mix up a big sloshy margarita for the special day, which many have begun to call “Cinco de Drinko!

Born and raised in Mexico, I can assure you that Cinco de Mayo is not our Independence Day. It is not a holiday in Mexico. Most importantly, downing margaritas and eating a bowl of tortilla chips is not a “celebration of Mexican culture.”

It’s not the day to say “Happy Birthday, Mexico,” and hit a piñata or use stereotypical festive decor. Mexican Independence Day is celebrated on Sept. 16, and San Antonio has done a good job of creating diverse programming in the city to trace back its history in an authentic way.

Cinco de Mayo, on the other hand, commemorates the Battle of Puebla, the day that Mexican forces defeated a French military invasion on May 5, 1862. Badly outnumbered and armed with inferior weapons, Mexican soldiers triumphed over the vaunted French forces. At the time, France had the strongest military in the world. The victory still echoes through time for all Mexicans.

Interestingly, Cinco de Mayo has come to be celebrated in the United States more than in Mexico. There are reenactments in Puebla, the site of the historic battle, but not much more. Celebrations are uncommon in the rest of the country.

Unfortunately, Cinco de Mayo north of the border has turned into a commercialized and inauthentic fiesta. Holiday specials abound on this day: This year, a San Antonio restaurant is offering a $100 margarita and local craft spirit Cinco Vodka is partnering with Uber over Cinco de Mayo weekend to give away 1,000 free rides. I get that they’re trying to keep people safe and appreciate the party, but tequila is the national drink in Mexico – not vodka, which is originally a Polish spirit.

Americans made more than $735 million worth of in-store beer, flavored malt beverages, and cider purchases on Cinco de Mayo in 2015, according to a report by NBC News. In a way, this has turned into a Latino version of St. Patrick’s Day.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a good fiesta as much as the next person, but when I’m reminded that President Trump tweeted a photo with a taco bowl (which isn’t even real Mexican food) to celebrate Cinco de Mayo last year, I think it’s important to look behind the curtain and learn the real meaning behind an important day in history. After Trump posted the photo (see below) the backlash quickly followed.

Trump’s tweet angered Mexicans already riled by his campaign rhetoric accusing Mexican immigrants of “bringing crime” and being “rapists'” and promising to make Mexico pay for a multi-billion dollar border wall. “I love Hispanics,” did not heal any wounds. One must be careful not to reinforce damaging ethnic stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican culture, especially in the current political climate.

Trump is doing away with the White House Cinco de Mayo celebration, a 16-year-old tradition. Vice President Mike Pence hosted a reception on Thursday at the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is located next to the White House. In 2016, 500 White House guests dined with San Antonio celebrity chef Johnny Hernandez, who brought a menu of authentic Mexican food to Washington.  Mexican pop band Mana entertained.

Courtesy / Johnny Hernandez

(From left): Executive Chef Johnny Hernandez, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morisson.

“The decision of the White House to renounce the celebration of Cinco de Mayo is another slap for many Mexican-Americans and Latinos,” said Félix Sánchez, president and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts. “Instead of embracing our nation’s multicultural heritage, we are deepening divisions, not seeking common ground.”

Cinco de Mayo took root in the U.S. in the 1960s when Chicano activists decided that celebrating the date would serve as a window into authentic Mexican culture and generate greater acceptance of Mexican Americans.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Cinco de Mayo at a local bar or restaurant or at the White House. Just realize that it’s more than another “happy hour.”

If you want to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, why not choose a more authentic way? There are ample opportunities this weekend to experience the real thing.

Here are my recommendations:

Civic Ceremony to Commemorate the “155th Aniversario de la Batalla de Puebla | 1313 Guadalupe St., Suite 100 (Free)

Friday, May 5, 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

The Consulate General of Mexico, the San Antonio Mexican Friendship Council, the City of San Antonio, and the Avenida Guadalupe Association will host a ceremony in front of General Ignacio Zaragoza’s statue at the historic Guadalupe Plaza to commemorate the Battle of Puebla. Ambassador Reyna Torres Mendívil, the newly appointed Consul General of Mexico, will be in attendance.

Conference in Honor of the Battle of Puebla | Instituto Cultural de México, 600 Hemisfair Plaza Way (Free)

Friday, May 5, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

UNAM-San Antonio, El Ateneo de San Antonio, the Asociación de Historia de San Antonio, and the Instituto Cultural de México will host an event to honor General Ignacio Zaragoza, one of the heroes from the Battle of Puebla who was born in Goliad, Texas. The conference also will include guest historians who will talk about San Antonio’s founding 300 years ago. 

Cinco de Mayo Celebration at Historic Market Square | 514 W Commerce St. (Free)

Friday – Sunday from noon to 7 p.m.

The festival at Market Square is known to draw up to 50,000 visitors a year; expect live music, heritage performances, and great food. In addition to the usual Market Square festival fare, the celebration will feature music by Palacio Brothers, Ruben V, Patsy Torres, and Viella. To learn more visit www.marketsquaresa.com.

Viva Mezcal Documentary Film Screening & Mezcal Tasting | Instituto Cultural de México, 600 Hemisfair Plaza Way (Free)

Friday, May 5, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Join film director and mezcalero Pedro Jiménez Gurría for a viewing of his documentary Viva Mezcal, which traces the history of the agave-based spirit from Mexico and sheds light on the future of the mezcal industry. Several varietals of mezcal will be available for tasting.

Mexican Street Food from the Culinary Institute of America | Farmers Market – Pearl Brewery, 306 Pearl Pwy

Saturday, May 6, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

In celebration of Cinco de Mayo, the Culinary Institute of America will feature Mexican street food at the Latin Outdoor Kitchen located in the Pearl plaza.

Ven a Comer – An evening of Fine Food and Spirits | Hotel Emma, 136 E. Grayson St., San Antonio (Ticketed)

Sunday, May 7, 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.

This event at Hotel Emma features a multi-course dinner by chefs from Mexico and San Antonio, including dishes inspired by UTSA’s Mexican Cookbook Collection, a mezcal tasting reception with mezcal expert Pedro Jiménez Gurría, and a private viewing of a selection of cookbooks from UTSA’s renowned Mexican Cookbook Collection. Proceeds from the event will support the preservation and development of the collection. Tickets are $150 per person. For more information and to buy tickets, click here.

7 thoughts on “Cinco de Mayo is Not a Mexican Fiesta

  1. Thank you, thank you for setting the record straight and for your super educated way of explaining this date. I grew up in Mexico and am always so confused here in the states when things go crazy for Cinco de Mayo. This was a great explanation of Cinco and I totally appreciate your taking the time to write this article!

  2. Thanks for the list of events, I think I’ll try some of those. Good luck trying to change people’s minds about Cinco DE Mayo….they still think Christmas is about getting toys from Santa.

  3. One aspect that people miss is that Cinco de Mayo was proposed as a Hispanic celebration in the United States by Hispanic leaders a few decades ago, and in part due to the fact that the key actor of this battle was a military genius from an US location, South Texas. General Ignacio Zaragoza was born in Goliad, Tejas on March 24, 1829, at a time it was still part of the newly independent Mexico. There is a statue commemorating the location of his birth in a Texas State park.
    See:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaragoza_Birthplace_State_Historic_Site

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