How America commercialised Cinco De Mayo

Holiday celebrates Mexican army’s victory over French forces in 1862 but has come to represent something entirely different in the US

President of Mexico Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and and his wife Beatriz Gutierrez Mueller at the National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico.  EPA
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Every year on May 5, millions of Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo without really considering what the holiday is and where it comes from.

For some, it is an excuse to eat Mexican food and drink Mexican beverages while engaging in some heavy cultural appropriation.

Such sentiments were amplified by former US President Donald Trump, when in 2016, he wrote on Facebook: “Happy Cinco de Mayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”

Happy Cinco de Mayo! The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!

Posted by Donald J. Trump on Thursday, May 5, 2016

The holiday is widely — and incorrectly — believed by many in the US to mark Mexican independence day.

In fact, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over invading French forces in Puebla, a city to the south-east of Mexico City.

The battle took place during the Second French Intervention in Mexico, in which France attempted to replace the relatively young Mexican Republic with a government that was more favourable to French interests.

Led by Texas-born Ignacio Zaragoza, the Mexican army knocked back the much larger and better-equipped French military, giving the country a much needed morale boost.

Victory, however, was short lived: one year later, the French won the Second Battle of Puebla and took control of much of the country.

But almost immediately following the first battle, Mexican Americans began to celebrate the victory in Texas and California, and it soon became an annual event.

Long subject to discrimination in the US, Mexican Americans began to use the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate their culture.

“The community itself began to celebrate that as a way of illustrating the pride they had in being of Mexican heritage again in the society that demeaned their language and their character for over 150 years,” said Guadalupe San Miguel Jr, a professor of US history at the University of Houston.

Setting up for a celebration of Cinco de Mayo in the US. Photo: Jeremy Harris / Unsplash

As the Mexican-American population grew, so, too, did Cinco de Mayo celebrations. In the 1970s and 80s, American beer companies used the holiday to increase sales, helping it reach the mainstream.

“Unfortunately, what has happened, of course, is that the business community saw an opportunity to make money from this celebration, and they have been involved in sponsoring many of these events, festivals, parades and in benefiting from selling goods to them, beer food, mixed drinks,” he told The National.

But despite the sometimes uncomfortable evolution of the holiday, it is still cause for celebration.

“[Mexican Americans] continue to express that pride every time they celebrate Cinco de Mayo,” Mr San Miguel said.

President Joe Biden will host a reception at the White House for Cinco de Mayo with guest of honour Beatriz Gutierrez Mueller, wife of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Updated: May 05, 2022, 6:45 PM