(NEXSTAR) – Despite what many may think, Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexican Independence Day, but the commemoration of a different battle victory. The holiday, which Mexico doesn’t even widely celebrate, has nonetheless become a “night out” staple in the U.S., as well as an opportunity for restaurants to offer deals on food or margaritas.
But for many American Latinos, Cinco de Mayo is thorny, as political animus around immigration has heightened. The day is also complicated by how it has historically been celebrated by non-Latinos in the U.S., which can often veer into stereotypes or even ridicule of Mexican culture.
Case in point: In 2017, a fraternity at Baylor University in Texas threw a “Cinco de Drinko” party, which was not only attended by students in sombreros and ponchos, but reportedly maid and construction worker costumes. A bartender at the event was also said to have worn brownface, The Washington Post reported.
The Anti-Defamation League even has a page dedicated to the holiday.
“Cinco de Mayo is a fun and festive holiday in the U.S. that it is often wrought with problematic choices made by people wanting to have a good time and celebrate,” writes ADL. “Regardless of intent, people can perpetuate harmful stereotypes of Mexican people at a private party, restaurant, community festival and in schools.”
For many Latinos, Cinco de Mayo also partly represents a “fake” celebration of Mexican heritage created to get customers into restaurants.
“On Cinco de Mayo, non-Mexican Americans pick and choose portions of Mexican culture to enjoy,” writes Katie Dupere for Mashable. “… It’s colonization of culture — a whitewashed, watered-down version of true heritage.”
Mexican early childhood educator Kim Silva told Colorlines in 2017 that the holiday, as it’s often celebrated in the U.S., does little to promote Mexican culture.
“We are more than a marketing tactic for companies when at the moment people are wanting a wall to be built. If the ways that the Mexican community is impacted regarding education, immigration and employment had the same amount of spotlight as ‘Cinco de Drinko,’ it could truly make a difference.”Kim silva, early childhood educator
It isn’t just scholars who are taking a closer look at the day, either. A Twitter search of “Cinco de Mayo” and “racism” bring up a slew of strongly worded responses from Latinos warning others to watch their behavior on May 5.
So what can be done?
The Anti-Defamation League lists a few ways people can avoid possibly offensive behaviors on Cinco de Mayo:
- Avoid wearing sombreros and panchos, which are elements of Mexican culture but can and have been worn to make fun of and stigmatize Mexicans
- Use Cinco de Mayo as a “teachable” moment to address stereotypes and offensive jokes when you see it happening
- Businesses, schools and other organizations should try to showcase a wider and more authentic range of Mexican heritage. ADL advises “expanding your focus beyond the ‘three Fs’ (festivals, fashion and foods) to avoid trivializing the culture’s rich history and people’s experiences.”
So what is Cinco de Mayo, if it’s not Mexican Independence Day?
The holiday commemorates Mexico’s victory over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, Britannica explains. The battle stemmed from tensions over repayment of debts, which several countries — including France — used as reasoning for an invasion. The event is considered symbolic of Mexican protest.