How Cinco de Mayo Became A Yankee-Doodle-Dandy of a Holiday
Today, Americans will gather far and wide at neighborhood bars, backyard barbeques and all points in between to celebrate an important Mexican holiday - well, kinda. The date does indeed have historical relevance in México (more on that later) but the reason it's become the iconic U.S. celebration of all things Mexican is that it is actually about beer. And money.
Notwithstanding the supreme idiocy played out last weekend by Baylor University's Kappa Sigma fraternity, for most folks Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity to enjoy and celebrate great elements of Mexican culture: guacamole, margaritas, tacos, music, family, friends… The list goes on. But ask the average person on the street what the holiday commemorates and you'd get a lot of blank stares.
For me, a Mexican national, living in the U.S., it's particularly interesting to bear witness to this year's Cinco de Mayo celebration against the backdrop of all things Trumpian. This nation's first president was a whiskey drinker and its penultimate is such a big fan of beer that under the Obama administration the White House brewed its own honey ale, using honey from hives on the grounds. Number 45 – despite launching an eponymous brand of vodka (it flopped) and owning a winery in Virginia – apparently doesn't touch alcoholic beverages at all, which, when you think about it, could explain a lot. So, I thought it was particularly appropriate to write about this tale of how Cinco de Mayo become the quintessential Mexican-themed holiday in the U.S. It is a story that's all about fake news.
Back in 1981, a beer company in México began exporting its signature brand, named Corona, to the United States. By 1986, Corona had grown its market share to become the second most consumed beer in the country, right below Heineken and was quickly chomping at its #1 best-seller heels. Corona's meteoric rise in the highly lucrative and ultra-competitive U.S. market had left a lot of competitors both puzzled and jealous. But perhaps none more so than Luce & Son Inc., a beer wholesaler in Reno, Nevada who enjoyed a hefty distribution of Heineken beer. To deal with what it perceived as a threat to its success, Luce & Son Inc. decided to try destroying the Corona brand by fabricating a rumor that Corona beer was contaminated with human urine. Yes, pee.
Their plan worked amazingly well. Consumers in the U.S. readily accepted the outlandish rumor as fact and Corona's market share plummeted by 80%. Corona’s importer, Barton Beers, Ltd., traced the rumor back to Luce & Sons and sued the Heineken distributor for $3 million in 1987. As part of the out of court settlement, Luce & Sons was forced to publicly admit that Corona beer was “free of contamination” a few months later. But the damage had been done.
A few years later, in an effort to revitalize the brand, a San Antonio-based beer importer named Gambrinus Co. launched a marketing campaign around Cinco de Mayo, which at the time was a little-known Chicano holiday. They hired ad agency The Richards Group to craft their advertising blitz and ever since then, Corona beer has been synonymous with Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Corona's marketing success also gave the entire sector a boost: according to a 2014 Nielsen survey, there is more beer consumed during Cinco de Mayo than there is on Super Bowl Sunday.
So, what are the actual historical events Cinco de Mayo is supposed to commemorate? If you answered, “México's Independence Day” you'd be among 99.5% of the U.S. population. And you'd be wrong. (México's Independence Day is celebrated on September 16th.) The historical event Cinco de Mayo commemorates is the Battle of Puebla, and along with it, the David-and-Goliath tale of an outgunned, outnumbered Mexican army prevailing against the mightiest army of the day. When Napoleon III's army advanced on the Southern state in 1862, in an attempt to install a puppet government in the form of Ferdinand Maximiliano, the rag-tag Mexican army, 4,000 newly-trained men armed with 50-year-old weapons left over from the Battle of Waterloo, fought the 6,000-strong, armed-to-the-teeth French army back into a full retreat. It was an unlikely and deeply meaningful victory for México.
The reason Cinco de Mayo came to be celebrated here in the U.S. is similar to why Americans of all stripes embrace St. Patrick's Day: these cultural events are a way for immigrants to both remember their national origins and celebrate being part of the fabric of their adopted nation. In the case of Cinco de Mayo, however, there's a subtext at play that is especially relevant considering all the anti-immigrant – and specifically anti-Mexican – rhetoric being peddled by the White House.
The history of Mexican immigrants in the United States can best be described as a cultural identity crisis fought on two shores. Here in the U.S., Mexican-Americans are judged to be "not really Americans" by people either willingly ignorant or unacquainted with the facts about the cultural, ethnic and racial origins of the U.S. population. In México, these same Mexican-Americans are viewed as "not Mexican enough" because they were born in a foreign land, speak little or no Spanish and have a dramatically different cultural reality. And then there are newly-arrived Mexican immigrants, who are tightly tethered to their country of origin in customs, language, economy and familial connections and who descend onto the American landscape in a transient state, a people who are both from here and from there, and yet who remain, to varying degrees, disconnected from both.
It's precisely this complicated cultural identity crisis that resulted in Cinco de Mayo celebrations becoming the widely-accepted part of the American cultural experience it is today. In the 1960's, Mexican-Americans, embolden by the successes of the civil rights movement sweeping across the United States, organized themselves under the Chicano movement. Caught in that hazy in-between of Mexicanism, Chicanos sought for a way to celebrate their cultural origins without turning their backs on their cultural reality, which was that they were American-born.
Commemorating the Battle of Puebla presented the perfect opportunity to do that – it was a historical event pivotal to both México and the United States because while Napoleon III was fighting his way into establishing a monarchy under French domain in México, the French were also tacitly backing the Confederacy in the American Civil War. So essentially México and the Union shared a common enemy in France.
Add to this the fact that the hero of the Battle of Puebla was Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza (arguable one the world's first Mexican-Americans because he was born in Texas when it was Mexican territory but came of age during the time that Texas became part of the U.S.) and Corona had identified the perfect brand tie-in – one that celebrated that mish-mash of Mexicanism which perfectly captured the spirit of an imported Mexican beer tuned to the palates of U.S. consumers.
Before Corona's use of this cultural subtext, Cinco de Mayo was not widely known outside of Chicano neighborhoods. With their marketing campaign, Corona not only put itself back on the map in terms of U.S. beer sales, but it achieved a rather remarkable bit of a cultural rewiring by giving American consumers a reason to celebrate a foreign culture.
I'm not much of a beer drinker, but this Cinco de Mayo I think I'll twist open a frosty bottle of Corona and drink a toast to underdogs of the past, the present and the future. Because whether the malevolence confronted comes in the form of an invading army, or a vicious rumor, or the bigoted policymaking of a sitting president, history continues to prove that moral people, oftentimes left with little else at their disposal than courage and conviction, can and do prevail against the storm, even when the odds are woefully stacked against them.