The first time I ever heard someone complain about Cinco de Mayo (aka Cinco de Drinko) was when I was at an office in my early 20s, and about four white guys were listening to another white guy going on about how it was a stupid holiday, and that the Battle of Puebla — where a rag-tag Mexican army using farm equipment, rocks and whatever they had to defeat three waves of French soldiers — wasn’t even celebrated in Mexico. “It’s a bullshit holiday,” he said. “It’s just another corporate scam to sell beer and tequila.”
“Well, yes, it’s not a Mexican holiday but it’s popular here with the Mexican-American community,” I said.
“Why would Mexicans in the U.S. care about an insignificant battle, and what makes you such an expert?” he asked.
“I don’t know why, but I’m Mexican, and my family always celebrates it,” I said.
My dad’s first cousin, Laura Macias, whom I always called Aunt Laura, was the one who really got me into Cinco de Mayo. When I was a kid growing up in the ’70s, there were parties, beer and Mexican music at my grandparents’, but Aunt Laura threw the best parties — I came for the food and, in my 20s, the beer and margaritas. She made carnitas, arroz mexicano, refried beans, guacamole, “Tia Laura’s magic salsa” and of course corn tortillas. “I think we started a few years after we were married, so 1979 was when we began our Cinco de Mayo tradition,” Tia Laura told me recently. To me, nothing screams Cinco de Mayo more than a combo plate covered in melted cheese, or super stacked nachos. I don’t want mole, enfrijoladas or romeritos: I’d rather pick up a Hollenbeck burrito at El Tepeyac, chile Colorado at Casa Vega or taquitos at Ciro’s. Authentic pocho gastronomy, please.
We’d drink Coronas and have margaritas until the tequila shots came, complete with lime and salt on the left hand to chase the shot of 1800 in your right. Uncle Roger would usually insist on two or three more after we’d already had enough. It was a fun day, eating Mexican food and getting plastered with family. When I lived with my cousin Monica (Tia Laura’s daughter) I continued the tradition, cooking my abuela's chile verde to serve with beans, rice, salsa, tortillas, guacamole and always a selection of sipping tequilas and Bohemia beer.
So no, I’m not part of the group that considers Cinco de Mayo to be cultural appropriation. I consider it to be a Mexican-American (Mexican-Americans are Americans) holiday exploited by Cuervo, Sauza and the Mexican beer industry, which is now owned by American and European companies anyway. The chip makers and bottled-salsa folks also do pretty well on the fifth of May.
The origins of Cinco de Mayo go back to the time of the American Civil War and the second French Intervention in Mexico. On May 27, 1862, the Spanish-language newspaper La Voz de Mejico wrote about the defeat of France at the Battle of Puebla, which caused an impromptu celebration of gunshots, speeches and singing by Mexican miners in the gold-country town of Columbia, California.
In the ’80s, Cinco de Mayo went corporate, becoming a holiday for all Americans, including this pocho. Cinco de Mayo belongs to America as a celebration of Mexican pride and culture — it’s as American as Saint Patrick’s Day, Mardi Gras and Chinese New Year, all celebrations that originated in other countries and are performed here in the United States. A nation of immigrants should have cultural holidays to celebrate the contributions of all immigrants, but this year, Cinco de Mayo has an orange stain on it, and I’m not talking about melted cheddar cheese.
In Trump’s America, Mexicans have been vilified and blamed for all that is wrong with our country. In Trump’s America, I can be detained by ICE and held without talking to a lawyer, just because I’m Mexican. In Trump’s America, the community of cooks, restaurant owners, workers, pickers and street vendors that make L.A. the greatest city in the United States for Mexican food (and many other Latin American cuisines) is living in fear. My friends, family, neighbors and the people that feed us are scared. ICE, VOICE and the Department of Justice are assembling a massive deportation and incarceration apparatus that is tearing families apart and disrupting our communities. So, am I going to be cool about the minstrel show of gringos in big hats, serapes and fake mustaches at Cabo Cantina? No, I’d say that this would be the year not to do that.
On this Cinco de Mayo, in a country that consumes 75 percent of Mexico’s tequila production (Americans drink more tequila than Mexicans), loves Mexican food (traditional and nontraditional) and thinks paradise is sipping a Mexican beer with a twisted lime shoved through the neck of the bottle while reclining on a beach chair, maybe it’s time to think about the people who brought you the food and the booze. So happy Cinco de Mayo to all and from the bottom of my heart, salud, but please have some decency — lose the pinche sombrero and be nice to your busboy, because maybe next year, it’ll be you clearing the tables.