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Cinco de Mayo: What you need to know
01:09 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. A version of this article appeared in 2015.

Story highlights

Raul Reyes: It's worth knowing more about Cinco de Mayo, our homegrown holiday

Reyes: Many in US have gone straight to commercialization of the holiday with little thought to its original significance

CNN  — 

Time to pass the margarita pitcher? For most Americans, Cinco de Mayo calls to mind tequila shots, mariachi music, and special promotions at Mexican restaurants. The Fifth of May usually means that it’s time for a mid-week fiesta.

Not so fast. It’s worth knowing more about Cinco de Mayo, our homegrown holiday. We should at least recall its true meaning and context. With Cinco de Mayo, the U.S. has gone straight to commercialization with little thought to its original significance.

That’s a shame, because Cinco de Mayo is a seminal date in Mexican history. It is a holiday that deserves respect, and it can even be seen as a metaphor for the Hispanic experience.

Contrary to popular assumption, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. Mexican Independence Day is September 16 – and dates back to 1810, more than 50 years before the first Cinco de Mayo.

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    Cinco de Mayo marks the date of a Mexican military victory over France – not Spain. On May 5, 1862, several hundred Mexican soldiers defeated a much larger contingent of the French army in the Battle of Puebla. France had sent troops to Mexico after the country suspended payments on foreign debts. Although Mexico ultimately lost this war (and the French did not withdraw until several years later), the Battle of Puebla was a huge morale booster for Mexicans.

    It was a David-vs.-Goliath situation, as the French army was then considered one of the best in the world. If only more Americans knew this! For if Americans love anything, it’s come-from-behind victories.

    It also might surprise people that Cinco de Mayo is more of a big deal in the U.S. than Mexico. Though the date is a holiday in Mexico, it is celebrated mostly in Puebla, the site of the 1862 battle. In the U.S., the observance of Cinco de Mayo is thought to have originated among Mexican laborers in the in the mid-1800s as a celebration of national pride.

    Living: Why do we celebrate Cinco de Mayo?

    A century later, Mexican-American activists in the 1960s claimed it as a symbol of ethnic identity. Then corporations discovered Cinco de Mayo as a way to market to Latino consumers, and the holiday went mainstream. So here is a celebration that began among lowly immigrant workers that has now been recognized by Madison Avenue and Wall Street. It’s a process that mirrors the assimilation of Latinos into the fabric of society.

    Cinco de Mayo is an imported celebration that has now become as American as the Fourth of July. How amazing is that?

    Unfortunately, the American celebration of Cinco de Mayo often results in a parade of stereotypes. In recent years: An MSNBC morning show apologized for a misguided segment that featured a producer shaking a maraca and doing a shot of tequila; an ABC News anchor apologized for wearing a sombrero and adopting an accent on what she called “Cinco de Drinko”; a Seattle radio station drew anger from local Hispanics after sponsoring a festival that encouraged people to “come dressed in the celebratory attire of festive Mexico”; and at a North Carolina college, some students took offense at Cinco de Mayo being observed with students donning sombreros and chocolate “mustaches.”

    The sad thing about all these incidents is that the parties involved probably had a good impulse to mark Cinco de Mayo. Yet they showed poor judgment in how they did it.

    There’s nothing wrong with celebrating Cinco de Mayo at a local bar or restaurant. I just hope people remember that there is more to it than Corona happy hours. Cinco de Mayo remains a meaningful date in Mexico and a point of pride for Mexican-Americans as well. Besides, we can never go wrong by showing a bit of cultural sensitivity. Just consider how it would strike us if we saw another country marking the Battle of Gettysburg with binge drinking and Uncle Sam hats.

    This Cinco de Mayo, let’s ditch the sombreros, fake accents, and mustaches. Instead let’s honor the shared heritage of Mexico and the U.S. with joy and without stereotypes.

    In fact, I’ll drink to that.

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