?Cinco de Mayo! For Sale?

How did a simple Mexican holiday become so commercial?

By Abelardo de la Pe??a Jr.
Published on LatinoLA: May 3, 2003

?Cinco de Mayo! For Sale?

"The government of the republic will fulfill its duty to defend its independence, to repel foreign aggression, and accept the struggle to which it has been provoked, counting on the unanimous spirit of the Mexicans and on the fact that sooner or later the cause of rights and justice will triumph." - Benito Ju?rez

This much I know:

In 1862, a French force sent by Napoleon III, grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte, began its march to Mexico City to settle a debt. General Ignacio Zaragoza was sent by President Benito Juarez to block the advance, with an ill-equipped and undermanned Mexican army.

In a battle that took place in the town of Puebla on May 5, the Mexican army was victorious. One source says it was 4,000 Mexicans, mostly Meztiso and Zapotec, against 8,000 French. Another says 2,000 Mexicans and 6,000 French, and still another says 4,700 Mexicans versus 5,200 French.

No matter. The Mexicans won the battle, although they later lost the war.

In 1867, after four years of French occupation, Mexico overthrew the invaders, executing self-proclaimed Emperor Maximilian, who was set up by the French to rule. Juarez regained power and declared May 5 -- Cinco de Mayo -- a national holiday in honor of the Battle of Puebla

Fast forward to 2001.

Although Cinco de Mayo is still commemorated in Mexico, it has definitely blown up here in the U.S., most notably in LatinoLA. Credit can be given to el movimiento Chicano born in the 1960s, as the holiday was highlighted and appreciated because of its cultural significance -- victory in the face of great odds and the patriotism it generated -- more so than its historical relevance.

An appreciation of all things Mexican began to take shape. Young men and women began learning folkorico dancing or playing in a mariachi or going back even further to take up Aztec traditions. Civic organizations began celebrating Cinco de Mayo with food, music and dance, bringing on stage Mexican and Mexican American dignitaries to give grand speeches in English and Spanish. From there, street festivals like Fiesta Broadway took hold, along with Cinco de Mayo promotions featuring drink specials at bars and clubs near you.

Now, it has undergone a further transformation, becoming a national commercial juggernaut, serving as the basis for the marketing of a wide range of products, goods and services to both Latinos and non-Latinos, fiesta-style, por supuesto. Even the Wall Street Journal recognizes its potential as a shopping holiday, nestled quite nicely between President's Day and the Memorial Day. And this year the (sales) holiday falls on a weekend, no less.


Where did we go wrong? Or did we?

"Mexico celebrates these holidays very differently," says Leticia Quezada, formerly director of the Los Angeles Mexican Cultural Institute, located in Plaza Olvera. "Together with el 16 de Septiembre, Mexico's Independence Day, these are historical civic holidays, very solemn occasions. The country remembers in a very formal manner, honoring the heroes who gave the country freedom, liberty and justice."

"We celebrate everything different in USA," she adds. "Just think of the Fourth of July, picnics, fireworks. It's not a solemn occasion. As culture crosses border, it adjusts with the culture."

According to Quezada, from cultural perspective Cinco de Mayo is significant because it gives the Mexican community of Los Angeles a great sense of ethnic pride. "It's a time to remember our historical roots, ethnic roots, richness of culture. We can remember Benito Juarez, the most revered Mexican president, while we celebrate the fact that we have rich music and dance traditions, along with the values of coming together as a family to celebrate and remember our history."

From a political perspective, she says "It's a reassertion of the present strength of the Mexican and Mexican-American community, and the great strides we are making in all fields: politics, business, and education. We are reaching in the highest places in decision-making and money- making in the US," she says.

But what about the commercialization?

"People are aware that many festivals are funded by beer and other companies. But a balance can be created. Sponsors should make an effort to know what Cinco de Mayo is all about, in order to create events with a cultural and educational context. Not to just to sell sodas and other products. Organizers miss huge opportunites to enlighten non-Mexicans if they do not include culture and education as part of their festivals."

"There is an awareness on the need for the celebration of Cinco de Mayo to go beyond music and food. But," says Quezada. "there's nothing wrong with music and food."

"They make good cultural ambassadors."

I'll drink to that!

?Viva el Cinco de Mayo!

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About Abelardo de la Pe??a Jr.:
Abelardo de la Pe?a is El Editor de LatinoLA. He can be reached at

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