Imagine if, when Memorial Day rolled around, bars overflowed with Mexicans in red-white-and-blue overalls and Uncle Sam hats getting blasted on bourbon and Bud.
“It’s kinda amusing,” said Justino Jimenez, former owner of Los Jimenez taqueria and cook at Kanella. Each Cinco de Mayo, the Puebla-born chef can’t get that reverse stereotype out of his mind. “It’s a bit silly to me. Americans make a big deal about it; however, Mexicans don’t really celebrate it very much.”
In the United States, May 5 has become a huge party holiday, celebrated with giant margaritas, shotguns of Corona and maybe some tacos tossed in to hold everything down. Any drinking establishment that can get away with a slight connection to Mexico, and some that cannot (Chili’s, ok, but Applebee’s, really?) runs themed specials — and it works. Tequila-seeking crowds turn out by the hundreds.
“Maybe when I open a Mexican restaurant, I’ll be more into celebrating,” joked Carlos Aparicio, executive chef for Zavino Hospitality Group, which runs venues focused around wood-fired pizza and Italian small plates. “It’s an American drunk day.”
“Yes, it’s very good for business,” said Alfredo Aguilar, chef-owner of Northern Liberties’ Las Cazuelas. “I wish people knew the meaning.”
The myth that Cinco de Mayo marks Mexican Independence Day has largely been debunked. Nearly every specials roundup and “things to know” listicle published over the past five years makes sure to note that occasion is actually on a different date (Sept. 16) and that May 5 instead commemorates the Battle of Puebla. That event, which saw Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza lead the Mexican army to victory over ostensibly stronger forces of the French occupation, was previously relatively obscure. It was a point of pride, but only regionally.
“I feel that if you are not from Puebla and are Mexican, it doesn’t have a meaning,” said Aguilar.
As it happens, the large majority of Mexican immigrants in Philadelphia are from that state. Although it was canceled this year, due to fears of ICE raids and general Trump administration pushback, there’s usually a big annual Cinco de Mayo festival here.
When he was in Puebla, Zavino’s Aparicio said, the day was definitely a big deal, but it was more of a civic holiday. “Government offices, schools, and lots of big corporations were closed,” he said, “and we honored the memories of people who died fighting against the French army.” In Philly, however, “I don’t celebrate, neither do many people I know.”
Adan Trinidad, chef and co-owner of Sancho Pistola’s in Fishtown, has similar memories. “I love Cinco de Mayo because I’m from Puebla and that’s where the battle took place,” he said. “When I was kid I use to go to the parades and festivities in the city.” Trinidad is amused by what the day has turned into here, but not annoyed. “I think any excuse to have a cold beer and some tequila is a great excuse to have,” he said.
Annoyed only begins to scratch the surface of the internal turmoil the so-called holiday causes for David Suro-Piñera.
“Ninty-five percent of the Mexican people that I know in Philadelphia, just roll their eyes when it comes to a conversation about it,” said the owner of Tequilas restaurant and founder of the Siembra line of agave spirits, who can’t watch the news on May 5 because he’s afraid he’ll catch sight of a morning anchor decked out in sombrero and mustache.
“I learned my lesson to never turn on the TV on Cinco de Mayo,” he said. “These messed-up representations of Mexican people — I find that very uncomfortable and offensive.”
Even though he has never, in 31 years of business, run any kind of deal or special marking the occasion, his white-tablecloth Rittenhouse restaurant still fills up each May 5 with Americans eager to celebrate. “We have more than 400 dinner reservations,” he said, “and that’s because we closed the books. The phone is ringing off the hook.”
Suro-Piñera describes Cinco de Mayo as “the most successful marketing campaign ever.”
The popularity of the holiday as a drinking occasion is generally credited to the company behind Corona. Although it was observed by Mexicans in the US as far back as the 1940s, as cultural appreciation and part of a push for Mexican-American civil rights, it wasn’t until the late ‘80s that Corona importers Gambrinus Group launched a promotion, suggesting it was only appropriate to toast the special occasion with Mexican beer.
Gambrinus may have attributed undue grand importance to the date because the company was based in San Antonio, Suro-Piñera suggested.
“That is very close to the birthplace of Gen. Zaragoza,” he explained. “He was born in Texas, before the border jumped. So the Mexican community that was settled there for centuries, they celebrated Cinco de Mayo in a special way because the general was from there.” Gambrinus picked up on that, “and the rest is history.”
Suro-Piñera is even more trepidatious about the whitewashing of history because of the current political climate. “It will be interesting to see the tweets from the guy in Washington, because he’s been so aggressive,” he said, recalling that during the Bush years, there was a big Cinco de Mayo fiesta in the White House.
“It’s great to celebrate and observe anything that’s related to Mexico,” Suro-Piñera said, but not with stereotypes.
“I mean, the sombreros, the mustaches, the big bowls of margaritas are all welcome, but not the people? Come on!”