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Economy & Business

Idealism vs. pragmatism: the economics of Cinco de Mayo

Glittery sombreros big and small. The occasional plastic mustache dangling from sunglasses. Reggaetón blasting from one speaker, pop tunes blaring on another. Tacos, piña coladas and colorful margaritas in fish bowls.

Wrestling, live music and the eccentric, playful People’s Joy Parade. This is Cherokee Street during  Cinco de Mayo.

A lot of fun for sure, but was Saturday's festival all in good fun or was there an element of cultural appropriation going on?

For Minerva Lopez, Cinco de Mayo is certainly commercialized, but not necessarily cultural appropriation.

“To be quite frank, it’s a money-making day for us. So if someone wants to see me in a hat and a 'stache and I can make a buck out of it I could care less,” said Lopez, who owns soccer apparel store Gooolll! and organizes the Cherokee Street Latino Business Owner Association.

Minerva Lopez, owner of Gooolll! and organizer of Cherokee Street Business Owners Association during the Cinco de Mayo Festival on Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“I don’t find it demeaning that gringos are coming to the street and wearing hats and 'staches because I wear an Uncle Sam hat on Fourth of July,” Lopez added.

When asked whether she felt the festival was respectful of Mexican culture, however, Lopez said no and then continued with a laugh, “But what can I do? This is how gringos view us.”

The Latino business association used to organize the Cinco de Mayo festival, but now the larger Cherokee Street Business Association does.

Association employee Anne McCullough characterized the Cinco de Mayo festival as a “marriage” between the Hispanic identity and the artistic identity of Cherokee Street.

“I think it’s really important to everyone in this community that we celebrate and recognize the Hispanic culture and community on this street while also wrangling in the other aspect of the street, which is the arts and music,” McCullough said.

Lopez said much of the festival was a commercialized exaggeration, however.

“In the sense that we have true Mexican food as we would eat it at home, it is quite authentic, actually. The other things — the excessive characterization of Mexicans with the hats and the 'staches and the serape — that’s an exaggeration. I don’t dress like that every day. I’m wearing jeans and sneakers,” she said.

According to McCullough, the music on the main stage was also authentic. Latino performers from across the country were scheduled for that stage, while other artists performed at the other two stages.

Down the street at Carillo Western Wear, Alex Carillo also said the festival was an economic opportunity. He described the festival as a community block party and likened Cinco de Mayo to St. Patrick’s Day — a commercialized opportunity to drink but not intended to be disrespectful.

Alex Carillo gathers his son Aidan and niece Sophie for a photo outside the family's western wear store on Saturday, May 2, 2015.
Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“I wouldn’t necessarily say cultural appropriation applies because there is an event related to Cinco de Mayo, although it’s not as important as Mexican Independence,” said Carillo, a civil engineer who works in Clayton. His dad has owned a western store on Cherokee Street for about a decade. “Why not make an excuse to come out? I don’t see anybody here imitating anything that’s derogatory to the marginalized Hispanic and Latino community.”

The commercialization of Cinco de Mayo is “a reality we learn to accept and learn to take advantage of,” Carillo added, noting that the phrase Latino in itself was more representative of European colonization than indigenous peoples from Mexico.

On Cherokee Street, the Latino business owners first embraced the economic opportunity of Cinco de Mayo 20 years ago, although they stopped organizing it a few years back.

Now the Latino Business Association plans the Mexican Independence festival on Sept. 15 and 16 and lets the Cherokee Street Business Association organize the Cinco de Mayo festival.

“We work together,” Lopez said. “When very competent and capable people came to lend a hand, we thought why not have a Cinco de Mayo festival that’s helped being run by Anglos, by gringos, and we could do another festival in the fall that is of more interest to us.”

For Mexicans, Mexican Independence is a much bigger holiday than Cinco de Mayo.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.

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