Americans Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Street entertainers perform on the Royal Mile as part of the Fringe during the Edinburgh Festival on Aug. 16, 2006, in Edinburgh, Scotland.
GETTY IMAGES/Jeff J. Mitchell
Revelers will toss tortillas and toast with tequila during Cinco de Mayo, a uniquely American celebration that leaves many Mexicans scratching their heads in wonderment.

The popularity of the day marking an 1862 victory by a small army of Mexican patriots and peasants over stronger French forces is growing across the United States to the surprise of immigrants. Because aside from sober battle re-enactments and political pronouncements, Cinco de Mayo is hardly a holiday in their homeland.

"When Mexicans first come to the United States and somebody mentions that they're all excited about some Cinco de Mayo festival, they say 'What?'," said Carlos E. Garcia, president of a consumer marketing firm in Burbank. "It would be like Canadians making a big deal out of the Boston tea party."

Yet since the 1960s, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a major event in Hispanic-heavy communities in large part for two reasons: a push by Chicano activists who wanted a Mexican cultural event celebrated in schools, and marketers who saw an opportunity to capitalize on Mexico's reputation for fun.

"It's a nonevent made into a big deal by marketing," said Garcia, who operates Garcia Research Associates, which targets U.S. Hispanic consumers.

The selling of the holiday will help double margarita sales Friday at an El Torito Mexican restaurant in San Diego, where General Manager Jacob Rivera is organizing a tortilla toss a chance to win free meals by lobbing a corn tortilla into a sombrero.

Rivera, who can't recall celebrating Cinco de Mayo during his childhood in Tijuana, is good-natured about the party, seeing it as a chance to tell his mostly non-Mexican patrons a bit about history even if it's only to explain that no, it's not Mexican Independence Day. (That's Sept. 16.)

Cinco de Mayo is the biggest day of the year for avocados. Americans will eat 17 million pounds of the green fruit, or 34 million avocados, mostly in the form of guacamole, according to the California Avocado Commission. Super Bowl Sunday comes in second to the fifth of May.

Sales also will jump for Jose Cuervo, the world's top-selling tequila, said Steve Goldstein of UDV North America, the brand's importers and marketers.

The company is dispatching a "Tijuana Taxi" to bars and restaurants in the Los Angeles area; throwing a block party with concerts and a "pub crawl" in downtown Chicago; giving away T-shirts in New York; and dropping a "margarita bar" into the waters off Miami's South Beach in what is being billed as the "Sink-O de Mayo."

The bar, complete with stools and Jose Cuervo bottles, will become part of an artificial reef used to foster marine life and attract divers. The bottles, though, will be for display purposes only.

"It's pretty hard to dive and drink nor do we encourage that," Goldstein noted wryly.

The bar, in fact, is a replica of one destroyed last year on the Republic f Cuervo Gold a Caribbean isle that was hit by, of all things, Hurricane Jose.

With its fun-spirited reputation, Cinco de Mayo has become a sort of Latin St. Patrick's Day. And the two are marketed in much the same way by Ralphs Grocery Co., which operates 450 supermarkets across California. Sales of corned beef and cabbage one month, then chips, salsa and margarita mix in another, said company spokesman Terry O'Neil.

It's a day popular across ethnic lines, he said, "like St. Patrick's Day, on that day, everybody is Irish; on Cinco de Mayo, everybody is Mexican."

While some Latinos feel Mexican culture warrants a holiday that promotes history more than hangovers, many applaud the day for being merry.

Maria Gisela Butler, a Chicano history professor at San Diego State University, said she used to ask students to list five things they knew about Mexico. Common responses were tacos, graffiti, crime or drugs "anything that was negative. This is what they associated with Mexico."

Cinco de Mayo may promote superficial concepts of Mexico, she said, "but at least it's something positive."

Richard Griswold del Castillo, chair of the university's Chicana and Chicano Studies department, added that the day honoring a "minor miracle" in Mexican history has resonance for today's Mexican-Americans.

"It showed valor and courage of the Mexican people fighting against a foreign invader. For the Chicanos in the United States, the same thing has existed for about 150 years, where the Mexican people have fought to preserve their culture, their language in the face of overwhelming odds," he said.

And besides, he said, "America is famous for commercializing stuff. I guess it's a sign of success when you're being commercialized, too."