Why Americans celebrate the Mexican holiday that Mexico doesn't care about

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Marco Werman: Finally today, I’ve got our old friend, Franc Contreras, on the line with us from Mexico City. And Franc, you know why I’m here: every year on this day, you get to explain what the fifth of May is all about, Cinco de Mayo. So, local Mexican restaurants here will have specials on tacos and margaritas. What about there? Who’s actually partying in Mexico on this day?


Franc Contreras: Really, not very many people ever party in Mexico on Cinco de Mayo. A few schoolchildren do because they get a long holiday. It’s basically a holiday that’s sandwiched right between April 30th, which is National Children’s Day--that’s much bigger than Cinco de Mayo--and then, of course, May 10th is Mother’s Day in Mexico and that’s humongous. But Cinco de Mayo doesn’t really get that much attention.


Werman: So, I guess in one state in Mexico, Puebla, they celebrate it. But that kind of tips to what Cinco de Mayo is all about. So, remind us what this holiday celebrates.


Contreras: Well, the history goes back to the time when the United States was involved with the Civil War, 1862. At that moment, French invaders were coming into Mexico. It was a battle that took place in Puebla state, and a small group of outnumbered Mexican soldiers basically fended off the French and they won the first round. But about a year later, the French returned and actually won a war and installed their own emperor here in Mexico, Maximilian. Eventually, of course, Maximilian was overthrown and the Mexican Republic came into being.


Werman: And this holiday now is celebrated by very few people there. I mean, you could argue that Cinco de Mayo is more American than Mexican. I just read it’s a bigger day for beer sales here than the Super Bowl or Saint Patrick’s Day. So, I want you to tell us about the role that one giant beer distributor played in getting us to this point.


Contreras: That’s right. You have to go back to the late 1980s, and this group, Gambrinus, based in San Antonio, was importing Mexico’s beer, working directly with these giant beer makers, Corona and Grupo Modelo, and they decided to create this advertising campaign aimed at getting people to return to their roots. Of course, this was happening decades after the Chicano movement took place in the United States. Throughout the American Southwest, you saw a lot of people of Mexican descent turning back to their roots with Mexico. So this beer, specifically Corona beer, and the holiday became solidified. By the late 1990s, about a decade after this first advertising campaign, this connection between Cinco de Mayo and Corona beer was firmly set in our minds, I believe. I think what it really does is that it speaks to the power of advertising and to picking specific markets. In this case, it had a lot to do with the growing purchasing power of Latinos of Mexican descent in the United States.


Werman: Yeah, well that’s interesting. You think the beer distributor really wanted to inform Americans about Mexican history?


Contreras: I think it was something probably less academically-oriented than that. It was probably “sell a lot of beer,” and as you say, it’s more than any sales that take place on Saint Patrick’s Day or even the Super Bowl.


Werman: Yeah, what do Mexicans think about Americans who celebrate a battle in Mexico, a forgotten battle for most people, by drinking a lot of Mexican beer? It’d be like Canadians drinking whiskey to, I don’t know, celebrate Washington’s victory at Yorktown. It’s kind of weird.


Contreras: I think most Mexicans aren’t even aware of what folks in the States are doing. They know that Corona beer sells, it’s one of the most well-sold beers that is exported anywhere in the world. So, Mexicans are clear on that. But I don’t think they understand how this Cinco de Mayo celebration came into being. I’m sure it would strike them as very odd.


Werman: Reporter Franc Contreras. Always good to speak with you. Thanks a lot.


Contreras: Thank you. Salud.


[Excerpt from “Volver Volver” by Piñata Protest]


Werman: One country’s forgotten battle, another’s excuse to drink. It’s how you interpret it, I guess. Like these guys from San Antonio, Piñata Protest, and how they interpret the Mexican ranchera classic, “Volver Volver.” That’s The World today. From our studios at WGBH here in Boston, thanks for being with us.


[Excerpt from “Volver Volver” by Piñata Protest]