The Americanization of Cinco de Mayo

Cinco de Mayo lands on a Saturday this year, and Americans of all backgrounds are scoping out sunny patios to meet friends or planning to hit festivals and parades.

(PICTURES: Diverse Celebrations of Cinco de Mayo)

Cinco de Mayo, as it's celebrated in the U.S. these days, is a recognition of the contributions of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to American culture, said Eric Olson, of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Cinco de Mayo technically marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, where, in 1862, Mexican troops defeated the French Army — considered one of the most powerful at the time. It's most commonly mistaken as Mexican Independence Day, which falls on Sept. 16.

The holiday isn't celebrated as widely in Mexico, Olson said. But he believes it's a good thing that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have made the holiday their own here.

Before the 1980s, celebrations were often local and community based with a strong emphasis on remembering and appreciating Mexican history. Since then, the holiday has become strongly commercialization, leading to an evolution in the way Americans see the holiday — commonly associating it with drinking and revelry, much like St. Patrick's Day.

Jose Alamillo, associate professor of Chicano-Latino Studies at California State University Channel Islands, attributes this change to alcohol companies who were looking to capitalize on the holiday by attaching their brand and image.

In addition, shifting U.S. demographics — namely the increase in young Latinos — has encouraged such companies to see "the holiday as a vehicle to create new consumers," noted Alamillo, who has extensively researched the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo.

There is some excess and disconnect associated with the holiday, Olson also acknowledged, but it's a day when everyone feels connected to Mexico in some way.

That appears just as true online, where tweets and posts about Cinco de Mayo preparations are lighting up the social sphere.

Our humble collection of tweets includes mentions of parties and revelry, but also restaurants eager to broadcast their themed promotions and news outlets with various stories on the holiday's history.

At the most frivolous end, hashtags, such as #CincoDeDrunko, also made their debut.

The key to reclaiming Cinco de Mayo as a holiday of meaning, Alamillo said, is to find the balance between the fun and the educational.

He cited the Cinco de Mayo Fiesta in Portland, Ore., an annual celebration that includes cultural performances and a naturalization ceremony for new citizens, but also a beer garden and carnival.

In San Diego, a coalition called Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo (Cinco de Mayo with Pride) is working to take back the holiday by focusing on the cultural and historical aspects.

The Battle of Puebla was ultimately about a small army defeating a large, formidable opponent, a message that Alamillo said is key in the fundamental message that Cinco de Mayo delivers, and one that all Mexican-Americans and others alike should remember.

"I think [the message is] this sense of, "˜Yes, you're small; you may be weak, but you know what? You have heart, and you have passion to defend what is right.' And I think that message is really important," Alamillo said.