Sober origins

Actual conversation overheard at Los Galanes, May 5, 2003. “Sho, what’s Shinco de Mayo mean anyway? Whassit for?

“Dunno. Hey, we need more margaritush!”

Perhaps the Irish feel vindicated, as they now have another ethnicity to commiserate with. I don’t have a lick of Irish in me, but if I did, I’d probably be really pissed off come every March when every dumbass frat boy and sloppy drunk gets totally shitfaced on watered-down green-tinged Miller Lite, allegedly in honor of the Gaelic heritage they don’t in fact possess. And if I were Hispanic, I’d probably be just as irritated every Cinco de Mayo.

So, do you actually know what Cinco de Mayo celebrates? Here’s a clue: The answer is not Corona. On May 5, 1862, a small Mexican army defeated a French battalion twice its size in Puebla, Mexico. It was a relatively small victory, one that really paled in comparison to the day when Mexico declared its independence from Spain on Sept. 16, 1810 — a date that’s celebrated as Mexican Independence Day.

Cinco de Mayo is more of a Mexican-American tradition.

“We in the U.S. adopted it as a form of Chicano heritage to celebrate here,” says Julian Vasquez, a science teacher at Earhart Middle School who teaches predominantly Mexican-American kids. “For Mexican-American heritage, we adopted Cinco de Mayo as our focal point.”

Vasquez says the holiday began in the ’70s, propelled by the Brown Berets and the civil rights movement.

Thus, in its essence, Cinco de Mayo is about celebrating the cultural identity of Mexican-Americans. But within the past decade or so, the holiday has become noted for one thing: drinking. This is thanks to a healthy dose of aggressive marketing from beer and liquor companies, who eagerly seize upon any opportunity to push their wares, cultural heritage be damned. Each year, I see more and more dive bars in the burbs advertising big Cinco de Mayo blowouts, with dirt-cheap margaritas and tequila shots. How many of those guys in flannels and baseball caps chugging Coronas through beer bongs and shrieking “Arriba!” actually know the significance of May 5? I doubt many.

Some Mexican-Americans are appalled by this phenomenon, while others simply shrug their shoulders.

Jovita Campoz is a member of Detroit’s Mexican Patriotic Committee, and helps organize Mexicantown’s annual Cinco de Mayo celebrations. She says she’s very thankful for the sponsorship the liquor and beer companies provide for the celebrations, but would like to see them provide more appreciation of Mexican-American culture, not just kegs.

“I think we have to work a little bit harder with the liquor companies to put out more information about the culture behind the day,” Campoz says.

But Vaquez doesn’t mind so much.

“I never thought of it as a drinking holiday,” he says. “I just thought of it as an opportunity, a day of observance. Look at Memorial Day, I don’t know a bigger drinking day than that, other than New Year’s Eve. It’s what people make of it.”

And, considering the day is in appreciation of Mexican-American culture, there’s certainly a distinctly Yankee twist to the marketing shtick.

“A lot of folks are bothered by the commercialization of Christmas,” Vasquez says, “but we’re Americans — that’s what Americans do.”

So, this weekend, take advantage of your proximity to the rich Mexican-American culture in Mexicantown, and head down to the neighborhood for the big Cinco de Mayo festivities. The bars and restaurants will be hoppin’ on the 5th, obviously, but the big fun happens on the weekend. On Saturday, May 7, festivities will take place in Clark Park, noon-9 p.m. — music, food, dance and kids’ activities. On Sunday, May 8, the big parade happens; it begins at noon in Patton Park, and travels to Clark Park, where the festivities will continue again until 9 p.m. For more information, call the Mexican Patriotic Committee at 313-554-9419.

Sarah Klein is culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]