Every year, in my late adolescence and young adulthood, my dad and his friends would celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. If it fell on a workday, they’d take it off. The agenda would begin with an appearance at the local parade, then a beeline for the pub.
There was only one Irish person in the group – as in, one actually-born-in-Ireland person – but that, of course, didn’t matter. They were all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. If, by Irish, you mean shit-faced by mid-afternoon. My dad is definitely not the only person to celebrate St. Paddy’s this way. The not-quite-holiday has become known as amateur hour and is best depicted in this 30 Rock episode: a sea of Megans, drunken couples fighting or all-too-publicly making up, buckets of testosterone and green-hued puke, and a totally misguided sense of patriotism. And now, the same fate has befallen Cinco de Mayo.
In recent years, Cinco de Mayo has become a warmer, more colorful St. Paddy’s Day: an excuse for people to abandon their work stations and head for the nearest tequila bar, and for booze companies to push branded margaritas, shots and beer. But ask most marketers – or most Americans, for that matter – what Cinco de Mayo is and you’ll likely get this answer: um, Mexican Independence Day? Wrong! Mexican Independence Day, which is actually celebrated all over Mexico, is in September. The Fifth of May is a day that is mostly recognized in Puebla, marking an 1862 battle there in which a ragtag band of Mexican troops went up against Napoleon III’s better-equipped French forces and, against all odds, defeated them. Some historians believe that the outcome of this battle prevented the French from taking control of the entire area, which could have put a serious damper on the results of the American Civil War, also raging during this time. Staving off the French helped cement Mexico’s relationship with the U.S.
Shouldn’t this mean I will be getting wasted this Cinco de Mayo?
The problem is that the day, first celebrated in the U.S. by Mexican immigrants, has become so disassociated with its roots that no one knows why they go out and get drunk each May 5th. They just do it because beer and tequila companies invite them to. Advertisers first glommed on to Cinco de Mayo some 20 or 30 years ago as a way to target the Latino market. Eventually, they realized even non-Hispanics like a vaguely cultural reason to get soused. And so, it turns out that Cinco de Mayo is an all-American phenom, after all. Hey, so was St. Patrick’s Day: the first parade honoring the saint was held in Boston. Both holidays started as a way for homesick immigrants to reconnect to their roots. And both have been co-opted by booze peddlers and binge drinkers.
So, why am I getting my pantaletas in a bunch? People are toasting all things Mexican, from mezcal to mariachi, on Cinco de Mayo. Isn’t that a good thing?
Well, just as the Irish might not like their entire culture reduced to green clovers and inebriation, neither is it wise for Americans to mistake Cinco de Mayo for a ticket to Margaritaville. But it’s not even about that. The reason I won’t be getting wasted this Cinco de Mayo is the same reason I don’t down green beer on March 17th: because I’m no amateur. I don’t need a historically twisted excuse to overdose on tequila and tacos. I’d rather sip a glass of 12-year-old Redbreast than anything dyed green on St. Paddy’s and you’ll probably find me drinking a heady mezcal on May 5th. No shots with salt and lime, no tequilatinis or other faintly Mexicanized umbrella cocktails in a branded glass, no novelty sombreros. And no amigos who feel the need to get Taco Bell drunk.
Smarter Mexican-themed drinking links: