“It was the wildest Cinco de Mayo party I have ever experienced,” recalled Angel Jimenez-Gutierrez remembering his first May 5 in Missouri.
It was 2002 and he was working at a Mexican restaurant in Rock Hill. Jimenez-Gutierrez had just moved to the United States from Mexico where Cinco de Mayo has never been widely celebrated.
“It totally caught me by surprise to witness the celebration in the United States,” Jimenez-Guiterrez said.
But, he also remembers making a lot of money that day.
Years later, Jimenez-Gutierrez opened his own restaurant in Ballwin — Señor Pique. And, for the 12 years his business was open, Cinco de Mayo made him big profits there, too.
“My god, it’s a lot of business,” Jimenez-Gutierrez said. “Even if you don’t have a party place, people come for lunch or an early dinner, it just gets out of control.”
Now, Jimenez-Gutierrez advises other Mexican restaurant owners as a consultant.
He’s been preparing them for Cinco de Mayo because every year the holiday is one of the biggest money makers for local Latino businesses — like Don Emiliano's in O’Fallon, Missouri.
Gabriella Ramirez-Arellano is one of Don Emiliano’s owners, which opened in August 2016.
“Last year, we really didn’t know what to expect,” said Ramirez-Arellano, who is also a business counselor with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “It. Was. Crazy. We had eight extra people working than we normally do, and even then I’m not sure that we were able to keep up.”
But, like Jimenez-Gutierrez, Ramirez-Arellano would never be acknowledging — let alone celebrating — Cinco de Mayo if it weren’t for her restaurant.
“Outside of the business piece, it’s not as relevant as people think it is,” explained Ramirez-Arellano. “Our Independence Day in Mexico is in September. Cinco de Mayo is about the battle of Puebla.”
Cinco de Mayo isn’t Mexican Independence Day
Ramirez-Arellano is right. Cinco de Mayo commemorates a fairly obscure battle in 1862 between Mexican fighters and the French army in the city of Puebla. The battle is a David and Goliath story of a smaller group of Mexican fighters taking down the much larger, better equipped French army. That 1862 victory kept the French from reaching Mexico City (though French forces eventually captured the capitol the following year).
Cinco de Mayo wasn’t celebrated in the U.S. like it is today until the 1980s when American and Mexican beer companies used the date to market to Latino communities already observing the holiday. In the 1970s some enclaves of Mexican American supporters of the civil rights and Chicano movements celebrated Cinco de Mayo because of what they considered an inspiring background story.
Grupo Modelo (the parent company of popular Mexican beers like Corona and Pacifico) started running large advertising campaigns that successfully tied Mexican beers to the holiday, contributing to the date’s current party reputation.
A balancing act
“I’m kind of torn, and I would assume that a lot of Latino business owners are,” explained Ramirez-Arellano. “On the one hand, it’s a great day for your business to showcase the margaritas, the service, the food. On the other hand, it’s like, okay ... this is not really our holiday. It’s a balancing act.”
Anne McCullough is the executive director with the Cherokee Street Development League, the organizing force behind the Cinco de Mayo celebration in south St. Louis on Saturday.
According to her, missing out on the profits isn’t an option for many Latino businesses that have customers expecting margaritas, buckets of Coronas, and tacos.
“This is a day that can ensure [a business] for the rest of the year, it allows some businesses to pay off their taxes.” said McCullough. “And it’s just grown every year.”
Fake mustaches and kitschy hats
But, “people still come to the festival wearing mustaches and sombreros. People are still doing that,” she added.
McCullough says she and the rest of the organizers have become increasingly aware of the cultural appropriation that can happen on Cinco de Mayo over the past 15 years that Cherokee has hosted a celebration.
“It’s not Drinko de Mayo … [but] we can’t keep people from being culturally insensitive.” she said.
“We’re more aware of managing this event that is not traditionally celebrated by Mexican communities, but has been nationally appropriated by American citizens as a holiday — we’ve worked really, really, really, hard to make this festival about the people on Cherokee Street with emphasis on the Latino community.”
Not everyone feels like Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity to build community.
Ramirez-Arellano says she feels more sad for than annoyed by those appropriating Mexican culture and promoting insensitive stereotypes on May 5.
“You have to decide at what point you’re going to take it personally, and what point you just say, okay, you just want to celebrate something,” Ramirez-Arellano said.
“I’m still going to celebrate Mexican Independence Day in September — so if you want to come back on the 16th and have shots with me, hey, we can do that.”
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