From – The Los Angeles Herald Examiner (May 15, 1987)
itle – “Put Cinco de Mayo on the wagon”
Twenty years ago, Cinco de Mayo was an event largely unknown outside the schools and parks of the Mexican-American community. It is now a part of the culture of the Southwest. This month, both barrio and yuppie bars advertised Cinco de Mayo “Happy Hours,” and margaritas and beer flowed freely. In good old American fashion, the celebration has been packaged and marketed to the public. And therein lies a problem.
Latinos visiting Mexico during Cinco de Mayo week are shocked to discover that Mexicans hardly note the day. After all, Cinco de Mayo commemorates just one victory – though brilliantly orchestrated by Texas-born Gen. Ignacio Zaragosa – over the French. The battle itself had little effect on the course of Mexican history. Its importance is largely symbolic.
Mexicans in the United States have celebrated Cinco de Mayo since the late 19th century, when Mexican patriotic associations, mutual-aid societies and other organizations sponsored the festivities. More often than not the speakers came from the ranks of the local Mexican elite. A strong strain of nationalism dominated the proceedings. The virtues of Mexican culture were extolled.
After World War I, the focus of the celebrations gradually changed. With the growth of Mexican-American middle-class organizations, composed largely of second-generation Mexicans, assimilation into American society became a dominant theme at Cinco de Mayo events. Scholarships were awarded; beauty contests held. By World War II, this cycle was almost complete. The American flag was often seen flying alongside Mexico’s.
In the 1960s, a nationwide revival of Chicano nationalism again changed the emphasis at Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Chicano activists and their struggle for civil rights were praised. Cesar Chavez and his farm workers became heroes. In response to the demands of Chicano students, universities and colleges picked up the speaking tabs of such activists as Corky Gonzales and Jose Angel Gutierrez.
Shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, social activism declined, and, as a result, Cinco de Mayo again changed its colors. Enter the beer companies. Recognizing that Latinos comprised the biggest beer-drinking market in California, they developed a plan to expand their sales even more. According to Jim Hernandez, director of the California Hispanic Commission on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse, the brewers adopted what is now known as the “Budweiser strategy”: Make alcohol a staple of Latino social life.
“Historical” calendars, which depicted Mexican-American yuppies as the new Chicanos, were published and widely distributed by the brewers. Beer ads in the form of plaques, signs and placemats turned up in Mexican restaurants and bars. Fund-raising organizations received free beer; Latino conferences were underwritten by breweries. Menudo without beer became unthinkable.
The situation reached a new low two years ago when leading Mexican-American national organizations – the National Council of La Raza, the American G.I. Forum and later the League of United Latin American Citizens – signed an agreement with the Coors Brewing Company. In return for calling off a national boycott, Coors promised to give more than $350 million to Latino organizations and to the community. Coors suddenly had become a good corporate citizen.
But there was no guarantee that Latinos would ever see a cent of the pledged money. That Latinos would consume large quantities of Coors was a certainty. Critics of the agreement devised a new motto for the Chicano movement: “Drink a Coors for La Raza!”
Even more insidious than the Coors pact is the mindset of the middle-class organizations that signed on the dotted line. The leaders of La Raza, for example, no longer live next door to the poor who pick up the tab. By agreeing to take Coors’ word at face value, they unconsciously undermined the very values and institutions they pledged to preserve.
Alcoholism is a major problem in the Latino community. Pathetically outdated studies show that it is a greater health hazard there than in either the black or white communities. It destroys families, despoils the culture. The arrest rate for drunkenness is disproportionately high among Mexican-Americans. It is a myth that Mexicans are not drunks but just good drinkers.
To be sure, it would be difficult to tell Latinos not to drink free beer. It would be equally difficult to persuade under-funded grassroots organizations that it is not in their interest to accept help from the beer companies. They need the money to continue their work in the barrio. But the price is too high.
On the weekend before this month’s Cinco de Mayo festivities, Latinos could drive out to Lincoln Park and listen to Tierra, El Chicano and War, as well as other popular performers. They could forget about their personal problems, forget that Cinco de Mayo coincided with the start of the flawed Simpson-Rodino amnesty program. They only had to listen to a drop-in politico tell them how great it was. And there was no charge.
Occasionally, there was the faint cry of “Viva el Cinco de Mayo” and “Viva la Raza!” More often, it was Miller time. Next year, the Latino organizations and politicians who sponsor and participate in Cinco de Mayo events should look harder for other sources of funding. That would be a real victory to celebrate.