Every year in April I’m pitched on Cinco de Mayo stories – generally very cliche ones about how to use tortillas, tequila or avocados for my Cinco do Mayo party stories. Last month, right on schedule, the pitches started rolling in from food brands, restaurants and Chefs looking for Cinco de Mayo coverage. It got me wondering more about the real story of Cinco de Mayo and how it is celebrated in Mexico. Because I seriously doubt it is, or started as, a day to swill tequila and the all-you-can-eat taco-fest that it is portrayed as in the US and Canada. Not that I mind swilling tequila or eating all the tacos, it just feels like something is missing.
So I decided to dig in a bit, rather than rely on Wikipedia for a quick squib about “culture” and simply become a platform to pass along an upmarket take on tacos, 23 fun things to do with avocados, or a recipe for margaritas using craft-distilled vodka and apples. (These are facetious examples, not pitches I actually got.) I decided to reach out to my network of friends who have roots in Mexico and talk to some folks with real connections to Mexico – people who spend time in Mexico, know the culture and could speak intelligently about the history of Cinco de Mayo and it’s relevance in Mexican culture.
Cinco do Mayo in Mexico
How is it celebrated in Mexico? How did your family celebrate it? Are there any region differences? What are the celebratory dishes, food and drinks? Or is it simply a US/Canadian construct that gives us Northern North Americans an excuse to drink frozen margs and eat too many nachos. (Which in fairness, I have no problem with. )
Here’s a selection of what I got back:
When I think of Cinco de Mayo I think of an American made-up holiday a la St Patrick’s day.
Well, Cinco de Mayo is such a funny holiday because it is the date of the Battle for Puebla. A war that was fought between France and Mexico and it really only has meaning in Puebla, not in the rest of the country. The Americans (and as of late the Canadians) have adopted that holiday as a “Mexican Heritage” kinda holiday, but it is weird for most of us Mexicans to be quite honest.
It’s not the day of the Mexican Independence (which is September 15) which would make A LOT more sense than that. It is like if in Mexico they celebrated the Battle of Quebec from December 31, 1775, as a Canada Day thing and served poutine and maple syrup down there.
I never celebrated Cinco de Mayo while I lived and grew up in Mexico City, it was known that on May 5 it was the “Batalla de Puebla” and we learned it in school but that was the extent of it… no celebrations other than maybe banks being closed in Puebla itself.
So on Cinco de Mayo here all I can think of is “Oh Gringos!”
Now, if we were to talk about Mexican Independence day or Day of the Dead, those were big and full of food and customs!
Cinco de Mayo, as I’m sure you read, is a holiday in Mexico to remember the battle of Puebla, which Mexico won against France. For Mexican children, this means a day off from school! But really, it doesn’t mean much else. There aren’t really any festivals or parties held on that day (perhaps only in Puebla itself, they may have some kind of street festival), and it isn’t really something that is celebrated personally among families. The date is far more widely celebrated by people in the USA than in Mexico itself; probably due to beer and liquor companies aligning themselves with the date as part of their marketing.
I will say, that my Mexican friends who live here, in Toronto, like to go out and party on Cinco de Mayo (although it could be said that they like to party every weekend 🙂 ).
Aha. As I suspected, Cinco de Mayo is a food & drink version of a Hallmark holiday. Something boosted and promoted to support the marketing of specific products and brands so well that it has taken on a life of its own. A brilliant piece of marketing which takes a cultural touch point and blows it out into something completely different. With a side of guac.
3 Common Misconceptions About Cinco de Mayo
Turns out MTV and I think alike… they posted this yesterday and hit all my points: history, how it’s recognized (NOT) in Mexico, and cultural stereotyping/appropriation in a time of dangerous power games. Well worth a watch!
So there you go.
Cinco de Mayo – a very localised celebration in Mexico where some kids get a day off school and there might be a parade. And a wildly successful marketing device in the USA and Canada.
Now I am more educated about Cinco de Mayo, I feel much better about writing about the celebration, food and drinks as a US/Canadian thing. Because there’s absolutely no reason to hold back from joining the party, sipping some reposado and ordering mole poblano.