As a Mexican-American Woman, I Have a Few Thoughts on Cinco de Mayo. It Could Be So Much More.

updated May 2, 2019
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Every year, as Cinco de Mayo gets closer, I find myself getting more than a little annoyed. I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to eat a Mexican meal and drink a margarita. (As long as you don’t dress up like a Mexican person while you’re doing it.) What annoys me is that Cinco de Mayo always follows the same old narrative: plan a fiesta and celebrate with alcohol. Eat or cook Mexican food, but not anything that will cause you to venture into a Mexican neighborhood. Remember that Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day — in case you forgot from last year. This is a party! Bring on the chile peppers, sombreros, and cactuses.

I honestly didn’t used to care about this. In fact, I sort of liked Cinco de Mayo. In college in Boston, where I was one of very few Mexican-American students, I planned a big Cinco de Mayo party my senior year. I made enchiladas using canned Las Palmas sauce just like my family used to make and draped them with cheddar cheese and black olives. I served them, with gusto, to all of my non-Mexican-American friends. We drank Mexican beer and a friend made barbecue. It felt like a cultural exchange — not just between Mexican and East Coast culture, but between the Southern California culture I represent too.

Now, as I am approaching middle age, I have carved out a niche for myself as a writer, Mexican food cookbook author, and entrepreneur. I’m acutely aware of how few Mexican-Americans get to share their stories with the wider world. Cinco de Mayo is the one day a year when the entire country acknowledges our existence — and not in the context of being delinquents or illegals who should go back to Mexico.

So how do we turn Cinco de Mayo back into a real holiday that celebrates Mexican-Americans? And how can we push to have our voices heard for more than just one day?

Cinco de Mayo, ironically, does have strong roots in Mexican-American identity and pride. It commemorates the Battle of Puebla, in which the Mexican Army defeated the French in 1862. While it’s almost overwhelmingly ignored today in Mexico, the American holiday was actually invented by Latinos living in California in the 19th century, writes David Hayes-Bautista in his engrossing book El Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition, the only historical book on the subject to date.

After California became part of the United States in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, writes Hayes-Bautista, California Latinos were consistently treated like second-class citizens for having non-white skin and speaking Spanish. The Battle of Puebla coincided with the Civil War in the United States, and celebrating it on Cinco de Mayo became a way for California’s Mexican community to rally together, show cultural pride, and demonstrate support for democratic government and freedom for all races.

Even throughout most of the 20th century Cinco de Mayo was still considered a community celebration among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans — until the beer companies got involved in the 1980s and made it “one of the country’s largest drinking holidays.”

So maybe this year we could ditch the beer-and-party-and-costumes narrative for something more meaningful — something that harkens more to Cinco de Mayo’s 19th-century roots as a way to demonstrate, and participate in, community.

It doesn’t have to be complicated. For Cinco de Mayo this year, you could challenge yourself to cook a new Mexican dish and purchase the ingredients at a Mexican grocery store. (I highly recommend Bill Esparza’s L.A. Mexicano cookbook and any of Zarela Martinez’s titles. Or mine.) While cooking, you could download and play Canciones de Mi Padre, Linda Ronstadt’s mariachi opus. (She also happens to be Mexican-American.) Or you could play some Miguel.

If cooking isn’t your thing, you could patronize businesses owned by Mexican-Americans. (Google it, there are lots.) Or visit one of the many excellent Latino museums in this country, like L.A.’s La Plaza de Cultura y Artes or Centro de Artes in San Antonio. You could invite your friends over and binge-watch shows or movies featuring Mexican themes or actors, like Vida, Real Women Have Curves and East Side Sushi. You could choose a Mexican-American author for your book club.

All of these things don’t have to be done just on Cinco de Mayo, of course. You could do them throughout the year. Just please, don’t buy any stereotypical party decorations — let them collect dust in the warehouses, so companies will eventually be forced to come up with something new.

Lesley Téllez would like to put a moratorium on the phrase Cinco de Drinko. She’s the author of Eat Mexico: Recipes from Mexico City’s Streets, Markets and Fondas and the owner of Eat Mexico Culinary Tours.

Charlotte Gomez illustrated this piece. See more of her work at charlottegomez.tumblr.com.