UW Graduate School

Michael Aguirre: Commemoration and appropriation of Cinco de Mayo

Michael Aguirre on the Calexico-Mexicali border. Michael studies shifts in meanings of citizenship and race on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Michael Aguirre on the Calexico-Mexicali border. Michael studies shifts in meanings of citizenship and race on the U.S.-Mexico border.

This weekend across the U.S., beverage companies, restaurants and bars will offer various specials on drink and food in celebration of the Mexican commemoration of Cinco de Mayo. But what does Cinco de Mayo really represent, and what does it mean to celebrate this day in the U.S.?

Michael Aguirre, PhD candidate in History, studies the U.S. and Mexico borderlands during the mid-to-late 1900s and, as an instructor and a T.A., has taught whole lessons around Cinco de Mayo. Michael spoke to us about the history, tradition and American cultural appropriation of this complex Mexican commemoration.

Give me a highly abbreviated history of Cinco de Mayo.

Michael Aguirre: Cinco de Mayo marks the Mexican army’s unlikely defeat of the French. In the early 1860s, the French army — a strong, well-supplied imperial power — tried to establish an empire in Mexico. On May 5, 1862, the French encountered the Mexican army in the city of Puebla. The Mexican army lacked supplies and resources and was made up mostly of peasants, but this “rag tag” bunch repulsed wave after wave of attacks by the French. After more than two days, the Mexican army pushed the French out of Puebla.

How is Cinco de Mayo celebrated in Mexico?

MA: Historically, Cinco de Mayo hasn’t been a major celebration, and that remains true today. Celebrations of Cinco de Mayo in Mexico are mostly concentrated in two places — Mexico City and Puebla — where there are reenactments of the battle with costumes and horses, as well as parties with folk dancing and music. Yet outside of these two major cities, there are varied but often small observances.

Tell me about Cinco de Mayo in the U.S. 

MA: Unlike in Mexico, after 1862, the fifth of May was quickly adopted as a day of celebration in the United States. In places that had attracted waves of immigrants during the Gold Rush — urban areas and mining towns in states like Nevada, Oregon and California — Mexican immigrants commemorated the historic moment as a way to create community and culture in the Mexican diaspora.

U.S. appropriation of the holiday “took off” in the 1980s, when major beverage companies such as Miller and Anheuser-Busch started to market beer around Cinco de Mayo in attempts to target a Latinx and Mexican consumer base.

These advertisements are most often misogynistic and based on racial stereotypes. They depict women wearing sombreros and traditional, embroidered shirts with only a bikini top underneath. Borrowing from cultural theorist Stuart Hall, these advertisements create a safe, easily-consumed version of Mexican culture that is not an accurate depiction of Mexican cultural identities.

This allows people who aren’t Mexican to “be Mexican for a day.” Yet the Mexican identity they wear is a falsehood filtered through the lens of beer propaganda, “consumable” women and racial stereotypes. It allows non-Mexicans to try on this constructed, retrograde Mexican identity for 24 hours, then remove the costume without acknowledging their contribution in making Mexicans and Latinx peoples into one-dimensional characters.

Tell me more about the effects of appropriation.

MA: I’m originally from the border area of California and Mexico, where there are few to no celebrations of Cinco de Mayo. The first time I experienced Cinco de Mayo in Seattle, after I moved here for grad school, I didn’t know what to think. Here I am, this educated Chicano, and I’m wondering if people are looking at me and seeing only what they’re putting on for that day. It makes me feel that no matter what I’ve accomplished I can be reduced to an overly indulgent, uncontrolled and lazy caricature — and that I have to work twice as hard to be seen as a person who should be respected.

So the question is, when people with no other connections to Mexican culture wear sombreros and drink margaritas on Cinco de Mayo, what are they really celebrating? Do they understand the history of what the holiday is commemorating? Or is this just an excuse to get drunk and act “Mexican?”

Are there any examples of this holiday being represented in a more fair or constructive way?

MA: In cities across the United States, Mexican and Latinx organizations commemorate the 1862 Battle of Puebla in numerous ways including folk dances, regional cuisines, music and Mexican and local history. There’s an organization in Beacon Hill, El Centro de la Raza, organizing “The fight against all odds” in honor of Cinco de Mayo this year. They’re asking people to show up in their traditional cultural dress, regardless of Mexican or Latinx identity, history or cultural background. It’s a great example of how these celebrations can be reimagined. El Centro de la Raza isn’t grounding their Cinco de Mayo celebration in sombreros and racial tropes; instead, it’s bringing it back to its roots in recognizing this historical moment of a fight against oppression.

Published May 2, 2018