Mexican Culture is Not a Costume

Cinco de Mayo, appropriated

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Illustration by Darin Connolly

If you bring sombreros, ponchos, fake mustaches and tequila to your Cinco de Mayo celebration, you’re doing it wrong. In the U.S., frat boys and politics majors alike use Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to party without recognizing the day’s historical and cultural significance. 

Many think Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day, but Mexico doesn’t celebrate its independence until Sept. 16. In 1862, Mexico beat the French in the Battle of Puebla after Napoleon III invaded the country. 

Excitement about the victory traveled from Puebla to the U.S. West Coast during the Civil War. Mexican Americans saw Mexico’s victory as a win for freedom and democracy in the face of slavery and elitism. At the same time, they rooted for a Union win against the French-supported Confederacy. Cinco de Mayo’s significance for the U.S. came from Mexicans living on the West Coast during the Civil War.

Mexicans in the American West celebrated in hopes that the Union might be victorious too. They commemorated the victory with parades, dances and banquets, which is part of why the event is so anticipated in the U.S., not in Mexico.

A network of Latinx groups, juntas patrióticas mejicanas, popularized the holiday on the West Coast after 1862. The holiday’s meaning changed among Mexicans in the U.S. over time. In the 1930s it symbolized unity between the U.S. and Mexico during World War II. In the ‘60s it was a celebration of Chicanx Power.

But Cinco de Mayo as we know it now is removed from its original context. The market for alcohol and Mexican food around the holiday made it a product of American capitalism. 

In the 1980s, U.S. alcohol companies saw the vibrant celebrations on Cinco de Mayo as a chance to profit. Now, Cinco de Mayo is associated with drunk white people in sombreros, not the deep history of Mexican culture in the U.S. When beer and salsa go on sale around Cinco de Mayo, it’s clear profit is more of a priority than culture.

Using a holiday as an opportunity to party erases its cultural significance. Mexican people are still stereotyped and marginalized for practicing the culture others wear like a costume and discard after Cinco de Mayo.

Constellation Brands, maker of Modelo and Corona beers, is building a brewery in the Mexican border town, Mexicali. The brand will use 1.8 billion gallons of water a year in a city where residents are accustomed to waking up to no water in the tap. The brewery’s construction has already had an impact on Mexicali’s water supply.

While Mexicans on the border endure a corporate-induced drought, Americans will celebrate a mock of their culture by drinking the very beer depriving them of humanity’s most precious resource.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations must acknowledge the commercialization and appropriation of Mexico’s culture the holiday has come to represent. Recognizing past and present appropriation looks like supporting authentic Mexican businesses, donating to organizations working toward immigrant rights and holding friends accountable the next time they reach for a fake sombrero.

If you really need an excuse to party this weekend, May the Fourth is the day before Cinco de Mayo, and no one will be mad if you celebrate “Star Wars.”


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