Before you head out onto the streets today to celebrate Mexico’s great day of independence, Cinco de Mayo, here are a few things to know.
Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexico’s independence day at all. That falls on September 16. Rather, Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico’s victory in the Battle of Puebla, when it defeated a much larger French force, led by Emperor Napoleon III, on May 5, 1862. Mexico beat the French in that battle 41 years after gaining its independence from Spain in 1821.
Cinco de Mayo isn't a big day of celebration, drinking or eating across Mexico, either. In fact, it’s only a public holiday in one Mexican city. Puebla itself.
Today, it’s much more widely celebrated in North America, where people go to restaurants and bars to drink imported Mexican beer, slushy drinks and to eat Americanised-Mexican food, such as nachos and burritos. Cinco de Mayo became heavily commercialised in America in the ’80s, when brands, particularly alcohol companies, saw an opportunity to tap into an expanding Hispanic population.
According to a 2014 Nielson survey, Americans bought $600 million worth of beer for Cinco de Mayo – more than was sold for the Super Bowl or St. Patrick’s Day.
As to why the alcohol companies wanted Cinco de Mayo to become Mexico’s most iconic celebration abroad (excluding Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos), there are a few possibilities.
It’s easier to pronounce than Mexico’s real independence day on September 16, Día de la Independencia. Also, September is packed full of events already (such as Labor Day in the US). There’s simply less on in May.
The celebration has crept into the Australian calendar. Bars and restaurants host parties, or offer drink specials. Franchise Mad Mex offered a free Mexican wrestling mask to anyone who can eat a one-kilogram burrito.
Diana Hull from Melbourne’s only authentic tortilla maker, La Tortilleria, says much of what we’ve come to understand about Mexican culture is filtered in this way, and she blames the alcohol companies.
“Mexican culture is associated with partying and alcohol in Australia,” she says. “That’s been the role of the alcohol companies. But there is so much richness to what Mexico brings to our culture, and it’s much more than just piss-ups and parties.”
In Sydney, owner of Ghostboy, Toby Wilson, sees the funny side. He’s putting on an event with Tio’s Cerveceria that celebrates the commercialisation of the celebration.
“We're taking the piss out of how much of a non-Mexican thing Cinco de Mayo is,” he says. “The theme tonight is ‘Gringo Night’. We're celebrating all of those things that are fake Mexican. [Tio’s is] doing frozen margaritas and cheap American lager. And we'll be doing crispy-shell tacos with sour cream and iceberg lettuce."
Diana Hull’s business partner at La Tortilleria, Gerardo Lopez, says we just need to shift our thinking a little.
“We want people to celebrate Mexico, but we want them to celebrate it for the right reasons,” he says. “People ask us what we’re doing for Cinco De Mayo, and my answer is always the same. We’re going to do what we do everyday. We’re going to celebrate Mexico. People come in expecting a party. But we have a party every day.”