A Complicated History of Cinco de Mayo

Posted by Anne McCullough on May 3, 2018 | Comments Off on A Complicated History of Cinco de Mayo

By now, many Americans understand that Cinco de Mayo is not the celebration of Mexican Independence Day (which falls on Sept. 16). It is, however, the commemoration of The Battle of Puebla, a day in which an outnumbered Mexican army defeated an invading Imperialist France in the city of Puebla, 62 years after Mexico had declared its independence from the Spanish. Cinco de Mayo is seldom celebrated in Mexico, except for the city in which the event took place.

(This TIME story goes in detail about what led to the conflict and the role of Mexico and this battle in the American Civil War)

Before the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo, Mexican-Americans – living in the middle of the civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s – embraced and began celebrating Cinco de Mayo as a show of pride for their Mexican culture, primarily through the Chicano activist culture of southern California, but later spreading throughout the U.S.

In the 1980s, beer and alcohol companies began popularizing and commercializing the festival that has now grown in popularity. The profit-driven motives behind many Cinco de Mayo celebrations has provided a challenge for those wishing to observe the cultural significance of the holiday without giving in to the commercialization of the event.

Calle Cherokee Cinco – a celebration of diversity

 In 2017, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen recognized Cherokee Street’s Hispanic/Latinx community with a resolution naming “Calle Cherokee” as an honorary cultural district, “to celebrate and commemorate the contributions of all residents and business owners of Hispanic/Latino descent and recognize the importance of promoting and preserving the heritage through an honorary designation.”

The recognition came about as a thank you to the dozens of Hispanic (predominantly Mexican-owned) businesses who have contributed to the economic revival of the street for more than 40 years. It was presented during the street’s Mexican Independence celebration on Sept. 16.

Not only are Hispanic/Latinx-owned businesses important to the street, but there is also a growing community in its surrounding neighborhoods. According to census data, the Hispanic/Latinx population in the neighborhoods surrounding Calle Cherokee increased from 438 residents of Hispanic/Latinx descent in the year 1990 to more than 2,000 residents as of 2015, which represents a 357 percent increase.

In addition, the “Cherokee Street Neighborhoods” are also some of the most ethnically and culturally diverse of all of St. Louis.

“Because of all of these factors, we wanted to make sure Cinco de Mayo was both a celebration of the Mexican culture that has made our street so rich, and also a celebration of our diverse neighborhoods,” said Anne McCullough, liaison of the Cherokee Street Development League, the nonprofit that organizes the festival and that seeks to promote the arts, culture and creative innovation on Cherokee Street. “Any revenue from the festival goes right back to the street for youth, art, cultural and other programs.”

It is no secret that Cinco de Mayo is a revenue-generating day for many Mexican restaurant owners. Gabriella Ramirez-Arellano, business counselor with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, meets regularly with owners of Hispanic businesses, and her family owns a Mexican restaurant.

Ramirez-Arellano, who is from Guanajuato, said the day has always left her torn.

“In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, which was a big victory over the French but it was not really something we celebrated in our family our culture,” Ramirez-Arellano said. “It wasn’t until we got into the restaurant business that we had to start making it a priority.”

She said she discourages cliches and stereotypes when it comes to the celebration.

“In our restaurant, we stay away from the mustaches and sombreros and cactus,” Ramirez-Arellano said. “On one hand I like that our culture is being celebrated but on the other I wish we celebrated Sept. 16 more — the real holiday.”

Minerva Lopez, who helps run a couple Mexican restaurants along Cherokee Street, agrees.️

“If people wanted to approach the celebration of the holiday with sensitivity, they would need to respect the holiday like they do other ethnic Holidays: Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s, etc., but mostly not falling into the emulation of their idea of Mexicans: Sombrero, mustache, falling over drunk, because that is not who we are,” Lopez said. “Ultimately, if Americans want to celebrate the holiday, I recommend they support Mexican businesses–real Mexican businesses and not the Mission Taco, Publico, or any other wanna be Mexican restaurant.”

Celebrating the Struggle

Leticia Seitz and Freddie Chavez run Latinos en Axion, a grassroots non-profit focusing on helping the local Hispanic community, addressing issues such as poverty, separation of families, deportation, English-learning programs and other causes. Nestled along Jefferson Avenue–just a few blocks from Cherokee Street–the non-profit also runs the Fiestas Patrias festival on Cherokee Street, a celebration of Mexican Independence Day.

Seitz, who is from Mexico City, said she appreciates the cultural significance of the holiday, even when it is not widely celebrated in her hometown.

“When Cinco de Mayo started being celebrated, it was a way for immigrant communities to find something they could identify with,” Seitz said. “We can’t forget the essence and tradition of the holiday. This was a battle the Mexican people won with stones and machetes against the French army to avoid becoming a colony of France.”

Seitz said she doesn’t mind people celebrating, but hopes everyone, including vendors and attendees, educate themselves on the significance and history behind Cinco.

“If you come at me saying ‘Happy Drinko de Mayo,’ for us, as Mexicans, the holiday loses the value and essence of the festival and our culture is not being respected,” Seitz said.

Chavez said the Cinco de Mayo festival on Cherokee can still evolve to become more culturally relevant and respectful.

“We want people to feel welcome to our celebration,” Chavez said. “Welcome to Mexico. Welcome to our family. Mi casa es tu casa. Come enjoy, but also come learn about our world.”

Lopez is also hopeful of the future of Cinco.

“We’ve assimilated,” she said. “I only hope that within one or two generations, Americans know enough about us that they embrace the culture and learn to respect it.”

– Carlos Restrepo, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis



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