It's not that I hate Cinco de Mayo, I'm mostly just confused. Are Americans who celebrate with sombreros and jalapeño poppers making fun of Mexicans or celebrating us? If I were to host a Cinco de Mayo party, serving homemade pozole and showing Iñárritu films, am I reclaiming the day or being suckered into something unsavory?
The only comparable celebration in America to Cinco de Mayo is St. Patrick's Day—the country's homage to drunkenness and the color green. And the Irish have pretty much made it into mainstream America, so maybe a debaucherous, stereotype-driven holiday is a milestone on the path to cultural acceptance?
I haven't always been so ambivalent about the 5th of May. Once upon a time, at the height of my self-righteousness, I thought I knew what to make of this strange holidayish fiasco: it was bullshit, simple as that, a marketing invention that was also kinda racist.
An academic study by José M. Alamillo, a professor at Cal State University, Channel Islands, summed it up like this: "Using content analysis of Cinco de Mayo advertisements in magazines, billboards, liquor ads, and store displays from 2000 to 2006, five mediated representations emerged: Mexico's Fourth of July, Mexican St. Patrick's Day, Drinko de Mayo, Sexism in a Bottle, and Mexican Otherness,"Alamillo wrote in his 2009 study of the phenomenon. "These representations are anchored in a new racism ideology that emphasizes cultural difference, individualism, liberalism, and colorblindness, which reinforce existing racial inequalities."
So that was pretty much where I was at with it in my early 20s.
But then one day, I was explaining this position to a dude I knew. He was a little guy, spiky gelled hair, ducktail in the back, looked like a striker for a soccer team relegated to the second-tier league. And as I dismounted from my high horse, he turned to me and said, "You gotta chill. It's fun. And everybody wants to hook up with a Mexican on Cinco de Mayo."
This is not exactly airtight logic, but it cracked my self-seriousness: maybe to hate on Cinco de Mayo was more pedantry than politics.
I started to dig a little deeper. My friend Gustavo Arellano, the eponymous Mexican of OC Weekly's Ask a Mexican column, reminds us that no less a figure than Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Octavio Paz (after whom I named my first born) had ensconced partying as a core component of the Mexican soul. "Something impedes us from being. And since we cannot or dare not confront our own selves, we resort to the fiesta," Paz writes in his linked series of essays, Labyrinth of Solitude. "It fires us into the void; it is a drunken rapture that burns itself out, a pistol shot in the air, a skyrocket."
Perhaps Mexicans in the United States, in many cases prevented from citizenship (i.e. full legal recognition of their selves), didn't mind having a drunken rapture once a year, even if the occasion was as fabricated as Valentine's Day. And if all the gringos joined in, too, so much the better.
Faced with these various questions, I decided to turn to my most trusted authority on Mexicanidad, my dad Salvador Madrigal, who was born in Mexico DF, and came to the states in his late teens (returning various times over the next couple decades, including for my early childhood). He is my own personal connection to the homeland, of course, and a close observer of both nations.
"Cinco de Mayo still is a minor Mexican holiday," my dad told me. Here in the States, in the first half of the 20th century, the scholar of Cinco de Mayo, Alamillo, found that Mexican communities in the US created festivals around the holiday as a way to build their identities as Mexican Americans. But then something changed.
Cinco de Mayo sold out.
My dad chalked it up to two factors he'd witnessed through the last 50 years in the US. First, "Mexican restaurants, particularly chains, grew exponentially," he noted. That's a story well-told by Arellano's Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. The second factor was "the magic of Corona marketing took hold of the average beer drinkers psyche."
Corona's rise is truly mindboggling: the first bottle was sold in the US in 1981. Now, it's one of the most popular beers in the world. The brand's success is so remarkable that it became a Harvard Business School case study. A regular mass-market Mexican beer moved north and became a premium American beer. How did that happen?
Mostly marketing, as you might imagine. And what's the core of its marketing effort? Cinco de Mayo of course! This is how they describe it in the corporate hagiography of America's Greatest Brands: "Today, Corona Extra is promoted year round with events and themed materials, but the brand’s association with the Cinco de Mayo holiday has been its most significant promotion," we read. "This unique promotion is supported by all forms of media and serves to kick off the important summer selling season."
So that may help explain the calendrical why: Corona was happy to adopt Cinco de Mayo as its banner holiday because it is perfectly positioned to help Corona kickstart its summer marketing. And once Corona got the momentum going, "other commercial interests jumped on the bandwagon," my dad said. "I don't think it's going away anytime soon."
Couldn't Cinco de Mayo be redeemed, I wondered, by noting that the holiday celebrates a victory over an invading, imperialist French army?
However, Benito Juárez, a multi-term Mexican president, did eventually lead us back to victory. And he's the only indigenous president in Mexico's history, and the only person of color to hold a North American presidency aside from Barack Obama. So, couldn't we somehow change the meaning of Cinco de Mayo from being a coronation of Corona to being a celebration of diverse leadership and anti-colonialism? Some have tried!
My dad was not convinced. "Benito Juarez has his own holiday: March 21st," he said, "and it's a much bigger deal because the Mexican establishment owes a huge debt to its native population."
Well, then, I was back to my central dilemma. What is a half-Mexican kid who grew up in the US to do about Cinco de Mayo? Burn my sombrero or wear it to happy hour?
"The best you can do is provide good craft beer and good Mexican food for your Cinco de Mayo party guests," he offered. "They'll think you are weird for not providing Corona and nachos but your soul will feel better."
We may not be able to win the battle of Cinco de Mayo against the corporate beer and restaurant brands. We will not find improbable victory in the way that Mexican troops did in 1862 in Puebla.
But our war has already been won. Demographics are destiny. We're gonna be 30 percent of this country in 45 years, says the US Census Bureau. And our real culture will exert an ever greater influence on mainstream America from border to border, no matter how many bros don ponchos and mustaches to get pissdrunk on Corona today.