Welcome to Cinco de Mayo, everybody. It’s time to don sombreros and fake mustaches, utilize the last vestiges of your high school Spanish, eat tacos and drink tequila and margaritas until you can’t see straight.
Or not. There’s a difference between having a good time and having a good time at someone else’s expense, and Cinco de Mayo trends toward the latter. In Mexico, the holiday’s only a big deal in the state of Puebla, where the 1862 Mexican military victory it commemorates took place. Granted, it was a stunning victory—the Mexicans beat back a much better-equipped and better-trained French force—but Cinco de Mayo doesn’t have nearly the significance of Mexico’s Independence Day (Sept. 16, not May 5). In most of the country, people don’t even get the day off work.
The rise of Cinco de Mayo in America started with the Chicano movement of the 1940s, but the holiday didn’t really take off until Corona and Grupo Modelo saw it as a marketing opportunity in 1989, realizing that Americans would be looking for another excuse to drink heavily. An ethnically-themed holiday falling on a relatively blank calendar space between St. Patrick’s Day and Memorial Day, just as the weather is starting to warm up? Nothing could be more perfect. The Mexican beer companies made their push, the United States bought it, and now the holiday is one of the single biggest drinking events in the country.
Now, the commercialization of Cinco de Mayo isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself; try naming a holiday that hasn’t been commercialized. Rather, the bigger problem here is that what could be a day to celebrate the actual culture of our southern neighbor is instead a drunken orgy of stereotyping, a time to indulge in our country’s worst tendencies to eat entire ethnicities whole and flaunt their remains. The difference between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation can ride a thin line—it’s a matter of intentionality and depth of thought—but exploiting caricatures of Mexico for bald commercial gain is definitely appropriation. Think about that before you go out to celebrate tomorrow night; either take the time to learn something substantive about Mexican culture or just go drinking without partaking in the most offensive aspects of the holiday. Drinking’s still fun, after all.
That said, maybe there’s a third solution: if beer companies co-opt holidays from every culture, then we’re no longer singling out Mexico, right? Let’s take a look at some of the commercial opportunities upon which our alcohol industry somehow hasn’t yet capitalized.
Spain: The Festival of Sant Joan
I distinctly remember wandering the streets of Barcelona last summer with two of my best friends, wondering where everyone was and whether those were firecrackers or gunshots we kept hearing. Turns out, we had unwittingly planned our trip to coincide with the Festival of Sant Joan—basically the biggest holiday in Catalonia. The entire twenty-something population of Barca was at the beach, partaking in the summer solstice celebration with bonfires, booze and general craziness. We fit right in.
For whatever reason, there isn’t an institutionalized celebration of the summer solstice in America, so why not just co-opt the Festival of Sant Joan? Everyone could dress like the bull-runners in Pamplona (despite the Basque-heavy Pamplona’s distinct cultural differences from Barcelona), blast Spanish (or, rather, Spanish-language) music on speakers, and head down to the local beach for what would certainly be another Corona and Dos Equis field day. After all, modern Mexico wouldn’t exist without the Spanish conquistadors, so it’s appropriate to honor them with drunken revelry, too…right?
Japan: Coming of Age Day
Imagine if there were a day dedicated to all the kids celebrating their 21st birthday in any given year, a day to go mad with the last vestige of youth before every additional year just means you’re a year closer to the heat death of the universe. Japan has this, because Japan knows that work hard, play hard is the way to live. They call it Coming of Age Day—it’s been celebrated since as early as 714 AD—and it’s a very inebriated affair. Basically, anyone who’s turned 20 over the past year gets to spend the morning thinking about what it means to be a responsible adult, having meaningful conversation with their parents and older family members, before hitting the bars that night and getting blind drunk. It’s a real highlight of the weeks after New Year’s Day.
Maybe the only reason we haven’t stolen this holiday yet is that it’s a little too collectivist for our libertarian asses. But get over it, beer companies. This is basically a second 21st birthday party for everyone, and with the Japanese theme, you know that sake bombs are gonna be the drink of the evening. So who gives a shit if the ceremonial parts of Coming of Age Day—the parts about becoming a grown participant in society, the parts rooted deepest in Japan’s tradition—don’t happen? People are having a blast and buying alcohol and probably putting on fun, horribly racist accents the whole time.
Iran: Chaharshanbe Suri
The new year in every culture seems to be a time for drinking and celebrating, but the Persian New Year brings its own awesome quirks. One of the traditions of Chaharshanbe Suri is jumping over bonfires. It’s a purification ritual amongst those serious about observing the holiday, but for our purposes, bonfire-jumping sure would make for a neat beer commercial, don’t you think? People gathered in the street with smiles on their faces and Millers in their hands, leaping over flames as inspiring indie rock plays in the background?
Nevermind the potential accidents that could result from the combination of alcohol and fire, either from the people or the highly flammable booze falling into the blaze. Celebrating Chaharshanbe Suri in American fashion would be a way for us to show Iran that we love them the way Donald Trump loves women and the Mexicans, and it would certainly be a more effective measure to bridge that cultural and political divide than either nuclear deals or sanctions. We’ll all bond over drunkenness!
Russia: Old New Year
You know Russians love their vodka…but did you know they love it so much that they celebrate two New Year’s Days just as an excuse to drink more? This “Orthodox” calendar out of which Old New Year grew doesn’t mean jack shit anymore; it’s been eliminated from their culture, and so we must eliminate it from our celebration of this holiday when we claim it for America.
Because let’s be honest: it’s a damn crime that our worthy Cold War adversaries aren’t honored by a cultural event yet. We’ll get everyone yelling “NYET” and slamming down shot after shot of the stinging clear liquid until they’re dancing like Cossacks on the tables at the bar. Bonus points to anyone who rides in shirtless on a bear. Those are the people who earn the bar crawl T-shirts at the end of the evening, and not because it’s January 14—because they went full Russian dictator.
Certain populations in America are already hip to this Hindu festival of color. At Vanderbilt, where I went to college, the South Asian Cultural Exchange student group (called Masala-SACE) put on a Holi celebration every spring. Anyone could come to the lawn, grab colored powder, and throw it around until it looked like a giant-ass, anthropomorphic rainbow had gone diarrhea all over everyone and everything. In Hindu tradition, Holi is a celebration of spring’s advent, a time to congregate with family and enjoy the fresh start in life that the warmer weather and blossoming plants bring. Here in the United States, all that matters is an excuse to have a paint party.
So what is the beer industry waiting for? They can cast Bollywood actors in their commercials for a display of image-driven diversity, then show the world how much fun you can have with Holi color powder in one hand and a cold Bud Light in the other. DJ Snake would probably be on the scene, too—the Eastern modes he uses in his EDM would provide the ideal paint party soundtrack and fit perfectly with our snatching of Holi from its roots.
Ethiopia: Adwa Victory Day
Remember that time when America turned a less developed country’s military victory over a European imperial force into one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year? Let’s do that again, but this time we can appropriate African culture! The Ethiopians defeated the Italian army in the Battle of Adwa on March 1, 1896, securing their independence at a time when the rest of Africa had been carved up by the Treaty of Berlin and distributed to various colonial powers, and there’s no better way to celebrate than by getting drunk and caricaturing Ethiopians. At the very least, it would show them the fleeting nature of any victory against Western forces.
In all seriousness, though, it’s not a stretch see the burgeoning marijuana industry doing to Adwa Victory Day what the beer companies have done to Cinco de Mayo. Haile Selassie, the man worshipped by Rastafarians as the reincarnation of Christ, was the emperor of Ethiopia for more than 40 years (1930-74), and while he was a toddler during the Battle of Adwa, there’s enough of a relationship there for America to take advantage. Thus, a day to appreciate Ethiopia becomes a day to appreciate Haile Selassie becomes a day to appreciate weed. All it takes is a simple application of the transitive property to repurpose a holiday.
Frankly, I’m shocked that alcohol companies haven’t done more to introduce Purim to the wider American populace. Jews are a fairly visible minority in this country, and they happen to have a holiday wherein celebrants are commanded to get drunk to commemorate the defeat of the genocidal Haman (one of a long string of tyrants who’ve wanted to kill all the Jews) by Queen Esther and her brother Mordechai.
According to the collection of traditional Jewish teachings called the Talmud, Purim should end at a level of inebriation at which you can “no longer tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’”
Factor in the custom of wearing costumes or masks to the revelries, and Purim sounds like the springtime version of Halloween, which is already one of the biggest party nights of the year. And even if the whole averting-genocide part of the holiday isn’t mentioned in the inevitable advertisements for beer and liquor (wine’s the traditional drink, but who gets wine drunk at a bar?), this is what the Jews would have wanted, right? For everyone to join in their celebration of existence?
This seems like such a no-brainer for appropriation, especially with the coming Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, until you realize that we already have our own version of the holiday—it’s an obscure celebration called Mardi Gras. Maybe you’ve heard of it?
Still, though, Mardi Gras feels like it hasn’t been totally exploited, what with its being fairly endemic to New Orleans and the rest of formerly French Louisiana. Perhaps broadening the holiday to Carnival and incorporating various Brazilian traditions, such as the samba dance and the masquerades, would allow more people to get in on the fun and globalize the affair. Plus, beer companies could sell more beer for a longer period of time. And really, that’s the point of all this, isn’t it?
Zach Blumenfeld will be spending his Cinco de Mayo draped in an American flag. Follow him on Twitter.