Cinco de Mayo is a day most Americans associate with two-for-one margaritas and bottomless salsa or maybe even with Mexican Independence. In reality, it’s the anniversary of a David vs. Goliath-esque battle that took place between Mexico and France in the 1860s. More than a century later, it was co-opted by alcohol marketers to sell booze to Spanish-speaking Americans. Quite the tenuous thread, considering that outside the state of Puebla–where the battle took place–it isn’t widely celebrated in Mexico. But this post isn’t intended to cancel Cinco de Mayo revelry; quite the opposite. With an Avocados from Mexico poll revealing that only 22% of Americans know what they’re actually raising their cervezas to every 5th of May, consider this a brief primer on how to celebrate a day of Mexican heritage, resilience, and pride respectfully, without the appropriation of a sombrero. As marketers ourselves, it’s the least we can do.
Picture it: Mexico, 1862.
What started as a naval invasion to secure debts owed by Mexico to European governments turned into a sly attempt by France to take over the country. Emperor Napoleon III–nephew of his namesake Napoleon Bonaparte–set his sights on claiming a French-backed stronghold in North America. But before his troops could invade Mexico City, they were remarkably defeated by Mexican general Ignacio Zaragoza and his men in Puebla de Los Ángeles. Though Napoleon ultimately occupied the country until 1867, this battle remains a symbolic and historic moment of Mexican resilience and sovereignty with as few as 2,000 Mexican soldiers fighting off three times as many French ones. Against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Mexicans living in California–wary of France’s Confederate support–regaled their underdog countrymen’s victory over foreign powers with the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations stateside. Today, the largest Cinco de Mayo celebrations take place in Los Angeles, California.
From cultural pride to corporate gains
In the 20th century, Chicano activists embraced the holiday as an occasion to celebrate their broader Mexican heritage and fight for their civil rights. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is also said to have had a hand in raising its popularity through US-Latin American policy. But, as happens with most holidays, Cinco de Mayo’s origins were usurped by commercial interests. In the 1980s, beverage brands saw it as a prime opportunity to sell more beer and launched marketing campaigns to Spanish-speaking Americans. As Paste magazine put it, “An ethnically-themed holiday falling on a relatively blank calendar space between St. Patrick’s Day and Memorial Day, just as the weather is starting to warm up? Nothing could be more perfect.” The rest, they say, is history. Or rather, historical ambiguity?
Of course, supporting your favorite local Mexican restaurant or bar on Cinco de Mayo is a wonderful thing. But without the sobering context and history of a day that is typically anything but sober, it’s easy for Cinco de Mayo to simply be an excuse to throw back too many tequila shots at a chain restaurant wearing a stick-on mustache when it could be an opportunity to authentically immerse yourself in the culture. So, without further adieu, here are a few ways we recommend celebrating and a few that should be absolutely stricken from the itinerary.
- By now it should be obvious, but for those not of Mexican descent who may be unclear: trust your instincts and forgo dressing as a caricature of Mexican attire. That means no sombreros, no ponchos (called serape and jorongo in Spanish), and absolutely no fake mustaches. Embrace the culture without making a mockery of it.
- In this same vein–for marketers and everyday folks–don’t give English words a Spanish flair in an effort to rhyme or be cute. It’s not Cinco de Drinko.
- Go ahead and sip on a freshly muddled margarita, an ice-cold tequila, or even a smoky mezcal, but refrain from getting sloppy at best or offensive at worst. Better still, talk to your bartender and ask to try a cocktail you haven’t had before like a paloma, michelada, or horchata.
- Beyond enjoying Mexican spirits or beers, it’s the perfect opportunity to eat delicious, authentic food. Seek out family-owned Mexican restaurants, food trucks, or ingredients you haven’t tried before, and avoid chains if you can.
- Take a Mexican cooking class taught by a Mexican or Mexican-American chef and learn how to make traditional recipes at home like mole poblano, a traditional sauce of Puebla.
- Read a book by a Mexican or Mexican-American author, watch a Mexican show on your streaming service of choice, or sing along to a playlist of Mexican musicians.
- Attend a Cinco de Mayo festival in your area to experience traditional music, dancing and dress, and activities for the whole family.
- Tell your friends what you learned in this blog post! Or better yet, continue reading about the intersectionality of Mexican and American history.
AMP and Advantage Employees Weigh in on Cinco de Mayo
“In my family, Cinco de Mayo is usually combined with Mother’s Day and boxing fights. It’s a weekend of bonding, delicious food, and good times. However, I did grow up seeing it celebrated inappropriately by my peers. As an adult, I notice that there is more of an effort to explain what the day actually commemorates and how to celebrate appropriately. The comradery of this makes me more proud to be Mexican-American and even encourages me to celebrate my culture more with my family.”- Destiny Velazquez, Engagement Strategist at AMP
“Cinco de Mayo is a holiday that in Mexico we don't really celebrate. As Mexicans or Mexican-Americans in America, we cringe about [it] due to the insensitive depiction of our heritage and culture and seeing it narrowed down to maracas, sombreros, and culturally appropriated Americanized dishes that fail to represent the rich gastronomy that Mexico has to offer. As a result, as an ERG, we originally chose to bypass Cinco de Mayo as an occasion to celebrate or even acknowledge. But the more we thought about it, the more we thought about the need for us to be part of the solution. Cinco de Mayo will not go away, and we do not want it to go away. We want more people to embrace it and celebrate it appropriately. It is an opportunity to share our culture, tradition, and history, and it’s an opportunity to bring our communities closer together.”- Gerado Orta, Co-Chair HOLA (Advantage’s LatinX ERG) and VP Strategic Planning at InMarketing Services
"Yo soy (I am) Peruana. In the town I grew up in [in] New Jersey, Cinco de Mayo was not something I saw celebrated or acknowledged; most of my friends were from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, or from South America. And because I am Peruvian, Cinco de Mayo was not part of my cultural upbringing. It wasn’t until I began working professionally in corporate America, that I was introduced to Cinco de Mayo. Frankly, it never felt right the way the holiday was presented, associated with tacos, margaritas, and sombreros. I have friends who are Mexican and saw the holiday as perpetuating stereotypes about Mexican culture. I did my research and learned more about the origins and significance of the holiday – something, unfortunately, missed when talking about Cinco de Mayo.
If you want to celebrate or partake in another communities’ cultural traditions or celebrations, learn about [them] first. Sometimes people confuse dressing in a certain way or imitating another cultures’ traditions as appreciation, [when] what they are doing is appropriating another culture. This can be off-putting or seen as disrespectful by individuals in the other community. Even if the intent was meant to be positive, “I was just trying to celebrate x culture,” what’s important to remember is the impact it can have on another community. The best advice I can give [is] showing appreciation for another culture starts with educating yourself first on what’s acceptable and what’s not before taking any action. And if you make a mistake, which is bound to happen (I mean we are human), acknowledge it, learn from it, and don’t do it again."- Giannina Seaman, Senior Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Advantage Solutions