Minor Mexican holiday transforms into U.S. fiesta

SAN DIEGO - Americans will toss tortillas and down shots of tequila Friday in honor of Cinco de Mayo, partying with a fervor that leaves many Mexicans scratching their heads in wonderment.

Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, but a minor one. It marks a May 5, 1862, victory by a small army of Mexican patriots and peasants over stronger French forces, but it's not Mexican Independence Day - a common misconception among Cinco de Mayo party-goers in the United States.

In the United States, it's become the Latin version of St. Patrick's Day - largely because makers of beer, chips, salsa and tequila promote it heavily as a reason to party.

''When Mexicans first come to the United States and somebody mentions that they're all excited about some Cinco de Mayo festival, they say, 'What?''' said Carlos E. Garcia, president of a marketing firm in Burbank that specializes in Hispanic American consumers.

''It would be like Canadians making a big deal out of the Boston Tea Party,'' he said. ''It's a non-event made into a big deal by marketing.''

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is marked with sober battle re-enactments and political pronouncements.

Since the 1960s, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a major event in Hispanic-heavy American communities because of a push by Chicano activists who wanted a Mexican cultural event celebrated in schools. But the marketing aspect of the holiday has become undeniable.

Margarita sales will double Friday at an El Torito Mexican restaurant in San Diego, where general manager Jacob Rivera is organizing a tortilla toss - a chance to win free meals by lobbing a corn tortilla into a sombrero.

Rivera, who can't recall celebrating Cinco de Mayo during his childhood in Tijuana, is good-natured about the party, seeing it as a chance to tell his mostly non-Mexican patrons a bit about history - even if it's only to explain that Mexican Independence Day is Sept. 16.

Cinco de Mayo is the biggest day of the year for avocados. Americans will eat 17 million pounds of the stuff, or 34 million avocados, mostly as guacamole, according to the California Avocado Commission. Super Bowl Sunday comes in second.

Sales also will jump for Jose Cuervo, the world's top-selling tequila, said Steve Goldstein of UDV North America, the brand's importers.

The company is dispatching a ''Tijuana Taxi'' to bars and restaurants in the Los Angeles area; throwing a block party with concerts and a ''pub crawl'' in Chicago; giving away T-shirts in New York; and dropping a ''margarita bar'' into the waters off Miami's South Beach in what is being billed as the ''Sink-O de Mayo.''

While some Hispanics feel Mexican culture warrants a holiday that promotes history more than hangovers, others welcome the merrymaking.

Maria Gisela Butler, a Chicano history professor at San Diego State University, said she used to ask students to list five things they knew about Mexico. Common responses were tacos, graffiti, crime or drugs, she said. Cinco de Mayo may promote superficial concepts of Mexico, she said, ''but at least it's something positive.''

Richard Griswold del Castillo, chairman of the university's Chicano studies department, added that the day honoring a ''minor miracle'' in Mexican history has resonance for today's Mexican-Americans.

''It showed valor and courage of the Mexican people fighting against a foreign invader,'' he said. ''For the Chicanos in the United States, the same thing has existed for about 150 years, where the Mexican people have fought to preserve their culture, their language in the face of overwhelming odds.''

And besides, he said, ''America is famous for commercializing stuff. I guess it's a sign of success when you're being commercialized, too.''


On the Net:

Mexican presidency's Web site, with history of Battle of Puebla: http://world.presidencia.gob.mx/index.htm

World Book site on Cinco de Mayo and Mexican culture: http://www.worldbook.com/fun/cinco/html/cinco.htm


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