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A Brief History of Cinco de Mayo — Hint: It’s Not About Tequila and Tacos

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It’s almost May 5th, and you know what that means: it’s almost Cinco de Mayo — a day that often, unfortunately, comes with “shots” of cultural appropriation. But seriously, when, where and how did we decide that honouring Mexican culture meant putting on fake mustaches and getting belligerently drunk? While I’m sure the half-priced tequila shots and sombrero-themed parties are totally the vibe in some circles (sarcasm), honestly it’s worth investing time into understanding what we’re actually celebrating on May 5. 

So, forget what you know about Cinco de Mayo (because it’s probably wrong), and let’s revisit the brief — but not so brief — history of what that day actually means and how to celebrate, respectfully. 

Related: Kendall Jenner and her tequila are getting dragged for cultural appropriation.

What does Cinco de Mayo celebrate? Cinco de Mayo in a nutshell

Often confused with Mexican Independence Day (which is actually September 16), Cinco de Mayo is an annual day of reflection in Mexico to remember the Battle of Puebla in 1862. 

At the time, French forces led by Napoleon III were looking to seize Mexican territory, as much of their North American colonies were usurped by the Americans and the British. The Mexican soldiers were under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza, who cited that their army was outnumbered three to one. Despite the odds, the local Mexican forces of Puebla defeated the French in an unprecedented victory — thus the day of remembrance of May 5, 1862 was born.

Though this is an important day to the people of Puebla, it is not an official federal holiday, therefore shops and government offices remain open. So you can imagine how weird it comes across that Americans and Canadians celebrate a “holiday” in honour of Mexican people — but that most Mexican people don’t even mark as a federal holiday. 

You may also like: 10 accidental microaggressions you might be making everyday.


How did Cinco de Mayo become a ‘hangover holiday’?

Leading up to the 1960s, Cinco de Mayo started to gain popularity amongst Mexican people as a way to honour Mexican culture. Fast-forward a couple decades to the 1980s, and perceptions of the day (particularly in North America) started to shift. Alcoholic beverage businesses started manufacturing products that catered to the Latin community and launching specifically around the time of Cinco de Mayo. 

Needless to say, based on what we see in the present day, the marketing and branding of Cinco de Mayo as a “tacos and margaritas” holiday was a big success. For many businesses and retailers, Cinco de Mayo became an annual moneymaker, with the sale of things like alcohol, limes and avocados reportedly boosted on average upwards of 40% in the week of May 5. For many people in North America today, Cinco de Mayo is seen simply as an excuse to party and drink in excess, even though — if you really wanted to — you can do that at any other time during the year. 

Why you really shouldn’t ‘dress up’ for Cinco de Mayo

If you plan on going out on Cinco de Mayo, please don’t “dress up.” Let’s call the costuming that often pops up around Cinco de Mayo (such as sombreros, fake mustaches and ponchos) out for what it is — it can come across as cultural appropriation, and sometimes even outright racist. 

There’s nothing trendy or chic about cultural appropriation. Dressing up as someone else’s culture or imitating a caricature of one is giving very entitled energy, and yet, some people still do it. Don’t be that person.

See also: The best foods to help cure a hangover.

If you really want to celebrate on May 5…

If your intention is to pay homage and celebrate Mexican culture, why not visit your friendly neighbourhood taqueria for a bite or two? Instead of appropriating Mexican culture, take the day as a reason to support your local Mexican-owned restaurants and businesses — big or small. There’s no shame in going out on Cinco de Mayo — at this point, many in the western hemisphere do. Just make sure that if you do so, you’re doing it respectfully and with a sense of appreciation for the Mexican community. Otherwise you and your mickey of Casamigos can sit this one out. 

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