Appreciate, don’t appropriate: Students warn against stereotypical Cinco de Mayo celebrations

Cinco de Mayo

Some students say that typical Cinco de Mayo themed party supplies, like the ones pictured above, are culturally insensitive. Photo illustration by Bonnie Cash

On college campuses, Cinco de Mayo is often an excuse to drink and throw parties, but some believe that the Americanization of the holiday – including margarita deals, sombreros and mustaches – negatively stereotype the Mexican community.

“It’s fine that people on college campuses are celebrating it, but it is just the lack of understanding of what Cinco de Mayo is (that bothers me),” said Valentina Pagliari, a sophomore film studies major who is Mexican. “Especially in America, people love the story of the underdog, and Cinco de Mayo is all about that.”

The holiday is often referred to as “Cinco de Drinko,” as people take the opportunity to drink Mexican beer and margaritas, especially in college. A Baylor University fraternity was suspended last May after attendees dressed up as maids, construction workers and in stereotypical Mexican outfits. To Pagliari, this is not an appropriate or respectful way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, and it causes the holiday to lose its cultural significance.

Cinco de Mayo traditionally celebrates the victory of the Mexican army when it defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862, but it is often mistaken in the U.S. for Mexico’s Independence Day, which is actually Sept. 16. The holiday gained popularity in the U.S. in the 1960s, when Mexican-American activists used the day as a symbol of pride during the civil rights movement. Beer companies gradually began to commercialize the holiday – in 2013, Americans bought more than $600 million worth of beer for Cinco de Mayo, according to research firm Nielsen.

[Related: Editorial | Rethink parties on Cinco de Mayo]

“The misconception people have regarding the holiday shows that people truly don’t embrace what the holiday is actually about. Especially on college campuses, a lot of people view it as an opportunity to simply get drunk,” said Armando Torres, a freshman business administration major.

David Hayes-Bautista, a professor at UCLA, published a book in 2012 about the Americanization of Cinco de Mayo, calling it “a fake holiday recently invented by beverage companies.”

“Mexicans love to party and they do that through dancing, drinking and having a good time,” Pagliari said. “But if you are doing that without understanding what the holiday actually is, there’s a huge difference. And that’s where it gets uncomfortable.”

At Gonzaga University, the vice president of student development sent a school-wide email reminding students not to appropriate Mexican culture. She wrote that these themed parties are insensitive and offensive not just to Mexican-Americans, but also to the Latinx culture.

[Related: Culture or costume: Cultural appropriation on Halloween]

“The parties themselves aren’t problematic,” said Christian Cordon, a freshman business administration major. “It’s more when decorations, specifically costumes, begin to be racist. Once it crosses that culturally insensitive line, it gets (offensive).”

Paul Apodaca, a Chapman American studies professor, believes it’s OK for people to celebrate Cinco de Mayo if they aren’t Mexican because the holiday has become part of popular culture in the U.S. There is a difference between appropriating a culture and appreciating it, he said.

“It is a minor holiday in Mexico, but it has been embraced in the U.S. as an extension of group pride and community,” Apodaca said. “It is quite appropriate for folks to create and further cultural identity and to share their joy with others.”