Thursday, May 04, 2006

Por Que Cinco de Mayo?

A good friend of mine sent me an article from the New York Times Sunday Style section about a Mexican drink known as "Agua Loca" ("Crazy Water"?). Jonathan Miles, the piece's author, describes Agua Loca as "a superspiked, sangria-ish drink" and a "fresher, bolder, [and] poquito bit tougher" than its more familiar Spanish cousin.

Why am I writing about Agua Loca on TPS? I'm not. I'm writing about an interesting blurb from the drink's maker, which can be found in the story's second paragraph:
"In Mexico we don't celebrate Cinco de Mayo," said Ms. Ballesteros, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, who is the former chef at Mexicana Mama in the West Village [in New York]. "And I can't understand why you guys do. It's a bit confusing. It's a national holiday in Mexico, so the banks aren't open, but we don't celebrate it like we do our Independence Day in September." (Ms. Ballesteros excused herself, in fact, to check with someone in the kitchen to determine what precisely it is that Cinco de Mayo commemorates: "A battle between the French and Mexicans.") (Emphasis added)

This struck me as odd. I mean, if Mexicans do not even celebrate the holiday that is touted in Mexico's version of our own Independence Day (which appears not to be the case, based upon the above quote), then why is it inescapable in the United States? Why is Cinco de Mayo a fixture here and not there?

I have two theories -- one slightly better than the other, and they may be intertwined.

My first theory is that it is part of a concerted, albeit unconscious, effort to make the growing Mexican population in the United States more comfortable. As I type this post, I am looking at my English-language desk calendar and see that Cinco de Mayo is but one of several Mexican holidays in May alone that are highlighted for the sake of the user. More and more signs are written in Spanish, more and more government forms are written in Spanish -- you get the idea. One has to question the wisdom of making Mexicans more comfortable with being in the United States, given that the vast majority of them are illegally here (I don't see the state reducing security around major targets so that terrorists might feel more comfortable, but I digress), but the strategy seems to be comprehensive.

My second theory has less to do with nationalism and more to do with capitalism. Cinco de Mayo appears to be less about the importance of another country's holiday and more about our society's desire to squeeze a dollar out of any given moment. Besides the obvious point that promoting Cinco de Mayo is a boon to companies that specialize in producing and importing Mexican cerveza, it also has the added advantage of filling the brief economic No-Man's Land between Easter (which can fluctuate between late March and late April) and the one-two punch of Mother's Day (May 14 this year) and Father's Day (June 18 this year). It is yet another chance to get someone to spend dinero where they ordinarily might not -- which, I suppose, is the very crux of capitalism.

It is here where the two intertwine: by combining the capitalist drive with the desire to make (mostly illegal) Mexicans feel more comfortable, it is part of a larger effort to capitalize financially on the influx of (mostly illegal) Mexicans. Perhaps the choice of Cinco de Mayo for this purpose -- which, if we are to believe Ms. Ballesteros, is not as important a holiday as others in Mexico -- was not blind luck: it is a holiday that catches people's attention without being too solemn an occasion to manipulate for commercial reasons. (For example, Mexicans might be repulsed at the use of Mexico's use of their actual Independence Day for such a business blitz. Then again, their actual Independence Day does not have the good fortune of falling at the beginning of summer, when beer sales begin to rise, so who knows. Similarly, use of religious holidays for commercial efforts might not be a good idea, given that many Mexicans are devout, conservative Catholics who might react negatively to images of Santa and the Easter Bunny hawking wares in a shopping mall.)

This is hardly the result of scientific research, but it seems sound. I look forward to tasting Agua Loca in the immediate future, although not if it costs $13 a glass. Ay, carrumba!

Hat tip to Jennifer and the New York Times.

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