One of the more misunderstood holidays in the United States, Cinco de Mayo has a richer history than any “Cinco de Drinko” bar crawl might suggest.
The story begins in 1861, when Benito Juárez was elected the 26th president of Mexico after a bitter civil war. It was a politically contentious time, and the country was in deep debt to France, Britain and Spain, among other European nations. France, ruled by Napoleon III, took this as an opportunity to try to overthrow Juárez’s government and set up his own puppet regime with help from conservative allies within Mexico.
In January 1862, Napoleon’s French troops, bolstered by allies, stormed Veracruz (a major port city on the Gulf of Mexico), followed by Orizaba, about 80 miles west.
By early May, Juárez was driven to Puebla de Los Angeles, a small town in east-central Mexico that was heavily fortified by walls. Vastly outnumbered, Juárez’s ad hoc force of 2,000 men, led by Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza, fought off assaults before the French finally withdrew in the early evening.
This military success served as great inspiration to Juárez and his supporters. Within four days of victory, Juárez proclaimed that the Battle of Puebla of May 5, or Cinco de Mayo, would be a national holiday forevermore. However, this victory was short-lived, as the French would win a Second Battle of Puebla the following year.
That’s when things get a little complicated.
Cinco de Mayo would be celebrated in the state of Puebla (and across the border in California) as early as 1863, but in much of Mexico it was never observed, then or now.
In the coming decades, as Mexicans immigrated to the U.S., there were occasional celebrations and minor festivals, and Cinco de Mayo was sometimes used as a sort of political protest. By the mid-20th century, Mexican immigration was greatly increasing and the Chicano Movement’s push for Mexican American civil rights was picking up steam. Activists began to promote the holiday even more, often at college campuses with sizable Mexican American communities in cities like Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles.
By then, however, some celebrants had forgotten its initial purpose.
“As the Cinco de Mayo approached one year, the editor of the campus newspaper, the Synapse, asked me to write an article about why the holiday was important to Latinos,” recalls David Hayes-Bautista, then a student at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco, in his 2012 book, El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition. “I pulled together what information I could, but nothing really explained to me why we Latinos in the United States, particularly of the Chicano generation, should celebrate a battle that had taken place 150 years ago, 1,500 miles away.”
When Hayes-Bautista asked Mexican emigrants of an older generation, who had celebrated the holiday in the 1930s, why they had done so, even they weren’t quite sure. But he had a theory.
“By celebrating Cinco de Mayo, we were celebrating resistance,” he says.
Throughout the 20th century, Cinco de Mayo celebrations became increasingly mainstream and distanced from their revolutionary Puebla origins. Then, big beer companies got bigger ideas.
“If you’re going to succeed in the beer business, you have to succeed in the Hispanic market,” says Paul Mendieta, Molson Coors Brewing Co.’s managing director, Latin America.
Beginning in the early 1980s, many breweries wanted to tap into the growing Mexican consumer base, much of it still quite youthful, but saw few opportunities to do so. Enter Cinco de Mayo, which they thought could be positioned as a sort of “Mexican St. Patrick’s Day,” and, thus, add another day of heavy drinking onto the yearly events calendar.
Anheuser-Busch and Miller both created their own Hispanic marketing departments and began sponsoring Cinco de Mayo events, starting with a three-day festival in Los Angeles in 1989. Coors, meanwhile, spent over $60 million in marketing to Latinx consumers, hoping to turn around a perception (and a federal court order) that they had long had discriminatory hiring practices toward Mexicans.
To a certain extent, the marketing push worked. By 2003, Corona, then owned jointly by Grupo Modelo, Mexico’s largest brewery, and Anheuser-Busch, was spending over $5 million in Cinco de Mayo advertising. According to The New York Times, that push led to more than 100 million bottles of Corona sold in the days surrounding May 5, 2003.
In just a couple of decades, this legitimate and modest day of remembrance had become a “fake holiday recently invented by beverage companies,” according to Hayes-Bautista. And it was only getting worse year after year, with reports of more binge-drinking and racially insensitive depictions of Mexican culture throughout the U.S.
“From working at Mexican-style restaurants and bars on Cinco de Mayo, not only are guests hard to handle sometimes, but the wild part of Cinco de Mayo comes from the staff,” says Meaghan Montagano, head bartender at Nat’s on Bank in New York City. “There will always be one or two staff members that get wasted on shift.”
By 2013, market research firm Nielsen reported that $600 million worth of beer was purchased in the United States for Cinco de Mayo, more than for Super Bowl Sunday or St. Patrick’s Day. The following year, CNN cited Cinco de Mayo as the biggest non-winter drinking day of the year. This, despite the fact that perhaps only 10% of Americans even know the reason for the holiday.
Dr. José M. Alamillo may sum the trend up best in his 2009 paper Cinco de Mayo, Inc: Reinterpreting Latino Culture into a Commercial Holiday, “Corporate America’s salivation for a growing Latino consumer base will continue to transform Cinco de Mayo into a selling opportunity.”