It's almost Cinco de Mayo, that special day in early May where we quietly celebrate one of the most famous underdog battle victories in modern North American history by learning more about the colonial period of Mexican history, watching all the Cinco de Mayo specials on TV, and decorating our mantels with quaint Cinco de Mayo-themed decorations.
Wait, that doesn't sound right.
Cinco de Mayo, sometimes more eloquently known as Cinco de Drinko, is a day that commemorates a sort of interesting historical thing that happened in Mexico a long time ago. That’s how someone described it to me once.
In the Southwest, it's been historically a minor civic holiday in Mexican-American communities, sometimes celebrated with parades, pageantry, concerts, and family-friendly, open-air festivals held at the local city park. As you probably know, it’s a fairly quiet military holiday in Mexico, one that commemorates an intriguing historical episode — the outnumbered and impoverished Mexican army defeating the better-equipped, twice-their-size French army at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The French, as we know, ended up occupying Mexico for several years, but that's another story.
In the United States at large, though, Cinco de Mayo has taken on a weird life of its own, the date largely stripped of historical or cultural significance. It's St. Patrick's Day without the religious allusions; Oktoberfest without the lederhosen. It's devolved into a minor, lowbrow American drinking holiday, whose totemic symbols include happy hour-priced Coronas, bedazzled charro hats donned by people who are not Mexican charros, and punishingly sweet frozen slurries borne out of neon-yellow margarita mixes and bottom-shelf tequila.
At its best, Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of the victory of a fledgling democratic union over the forces of imperialism, which now happens to provide a convenient excuse to meet your friends for happy hour specials on a weeknight. At its worst, it’s an excuse to indulge in excess, debauchery, and casual racism.
Cinco de Mayo, to put it a little roughly, is kind of a weird and bullshitty holiday. Weird because it’s a little baffling why this particular date and event has become enshrined as the piece of Mexican culture and history that's to be celebrated in American bars and grills every spring. Bullshitty because its significance has been lost in a haze of alcohol, commercialization, and a pervading sense of underlying indifference. (The running theory in my house growing up, by the way, is that Cinco de Mayo is catchier and way easier for non-Spanish speakers to say than Dieciséis de Septiembre, or September 16, Mexican Independence Day. That's the date that puts a lump in the throats of nostalgic Mexicans the world over, who tune in to watch the ceremonial El Grito on the eve of September 15, broadcast live from El Zocalo in Mexico City).
The relationship between Mexico and the U.S. has always been strained and neurotic, to put it lightly. Mexican culture is at once deeply familiar and deeply foreign to so many living in America, even in big cities with sizable Mexican and Mexican-American populations — cities like Phoenix. I spent my senior year in high school history class sitting next to a dude who loved tacos, but had no idea that the country of Mexico has states. "Mexico has states?" he asked incredulously, the intrigue fading quickly into a yawn. He went off to an Ivy, and I suspect he now celebrates Cinco de Mayo with no sense of irony.
Is it wrong or kind of dumb to celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Forgive me for channeling the spirit of Jimmy Buffet, but I’ve reached the point in life where beloved family members are starting to perish, so I don't think it's ever wrong or dumb to have fun, drink beer, and demolish a bowl of guacamole with your favorite people on Earth. It's five o'clock, or Cinco de Mayo, somewhere. Or, at least, it feels like it should be more often.
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Anyway, it doesn't really matter whether it’s kinda, sorta, or mostly bullshit, because Cinco de Mayo is here to stay. It’s easy for everyone to pronounce, and it’s conveniently fixed on the calendar between Mardi Gras and Memorial Day weekend. In a country where the holidays are few, and paid time off is preciously small, Cinco de Mayo is a kind of American secular feast day where vomiting in the backseat of someone's car is often part of the ritualized activities.
If you have a love-hate thing with Cinco de Mayo like me, if it makes you feel even the tiniest bit weird or annoyed or exhausted to see your culture reduced to college students getting drunk and wearing cheap straw sombreros, it may help to know that the day seems best enjoyed with a sense of world-weary bemusement. Learn to sing a bar or two of a ranchera standard, say Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s "El Rey," just for the occasion. If you grew up like me, you already know it, but maybe polish it up, if only to amuse your friends in the pre-dawn hours of Seis de Mayo, after you've surrendered to the allure of agave-based spirits. Or, as has happened to me lately, you might be so distracted by life in general that you have no idea it's even Cinco de Mayo until it's halfway over. You may choose to celebrate and take pleasure in Mexican culture in other ways, on the daily.
But if you've historically approached Cinco de Mayo with all the sensitivity and nuance shown by the big cerveza conglomerates and American popular culture at large, well, understand that wearing a charro hat when you're not a Mexican charro may send signals that you're goofy at best, and kind of an asshole at worst. In any case, at least you're following tradition.