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Cinco de Mayo’s commercialization causes concern

It's May 5th and in San Diego for both Chicanos and non-Chicanos that can mean two things - sometimes in conflict: party time and cultural awareness.
Gil Griffin has our story:

The countdown is over. A digital ticker on a scoreboard illustrated with two lime-topped bottles of Corona beer has reached zero. Cinco de mayo festivities have officially begun at Casa Guadalajara, a popular Mexican eatery in Old Town San Diego.

But across town, in City Heights, a battle is also brewing. This afternoon, a group of mostly Latino community activists will dig in against a powerful opponent - major breweries and distilleries. The activists, who have formed a coalition called Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo - Cinco de Mayo with pride - are hosting their fifth annual alcohol-free Cinco de Mayo celebration at the City Heights Performance Annex. About a thousand people are expected to attend.

The Coalition says breweries use superior financial firepower to obscure the cultural holiday's true meaning.

Kevin Hauck supervises alcohol prevention services for Social Advocates for Youth San Diego, a coalition member.

Hauck: "We want to bring back the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo and not have it turn into something like St. Patricks Day, where people have forgotten what the message was."

On this day in 1862, in central Mexico, Mexican general Ignacio Zaragosa led his greatly outnumbered and outgunned troops to successfully - if only temporarily - repel the invading French army at la Batalla de Puebla.

Isidro Ortiz is a Chicano Studies professor at San Diego State University and has edited several Chicano history books. He says Cinco de Mayo's enduring legacy is resisting oppression and celebrating unity. That's how he and other Chicano activists across the Southwest first celebrated the day in the late 1960s. But in the 80s, he says, Cinco de Mayo became a corporate marketing bonanza.

Ortiz: "It was the first time we began to have awareness of the changing demographics and the importance of the so called Latino market. But it was also the time which as it had been declared the so-called decade of the Hispanic Adolph Coors. So right from the start, you began to have that association and so Cinco de Mayo then becomes almost like a pivotal point around which you have these things coming together."

The Coalition says the marketing has made many Americans think, incorrectly, that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican independence day. That's really September 16th. The Mexican Consul General in San Diego, Luis Cabrera, works with the Coalition to dispel confusion about Cinco de Mayo.

Cabrera: "Certainly, it has been over-commercialized...that is not good, or bad. But, I think at the same time, we have to insist on the importance of that day and the real meaning of that day."

Back at Casa Guadalajara, Filiberto Orta, the restaurant's general manager, is caught in the crossfire between the activists and the brewers and distilleries. Tecate, Corona and Jose Cuervo furnish La Casa with banners and posters, amplifying their products for Cinco de Mayo. At the bar, placards proclaim, Viva Corona! and a poster beckons male customers to Meet the Cuervo Girls for happy Hour and help them count down to Cinco de Mayo.

But Orta says breweries and distilleries don't single out Cinco de Mayo for heavy promotion.

Orta: "They also provide me with decorations for Monday Night Football. They also provide me with decorations for any other holiday, so you know, it is just a different holiday."


But Hauck and other Coalition members call the advertising insensitive.

Hauck: "We see cultural symbols like the pyramids at Chichen Itza that have been turned into the base for a margarita blender and we don't really see that as offensive, but if the sme picture was using The White House, or the Star of David or other cultural symbols people would be very outraged and very offended."

A recent study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth says alcohol advertising excessively targets young Latinos. The National Latino Council on Alcohol and Tobacco Prevention says Latino youth are likelier to binge drink than members of other ethnic groups and have less access to prevention and treatment.

In his restaurant's defense, Casa Guadalajara general manager Filiberto Orta says his bar will also push non-alcoholic drinks.

Orta: "What we've done this year, we have come up with, you know, many virgin drinks. We actually call them 'cinco virgins,' and we have five different drinks we are promoting."

As the immigration reform debate rages on Capitol Hill and millions across the country publicly demonstrate their support for immigrant rights, Ortiz, the Chicano Studies professor, says this year's Cinco de Mayo may take on greater meaning.

Ortiz: "In light of all the mobilization and the protests that have occured and the expressioans of Mexican cultural heirtage pride his year, perhaps more than previous years there may be a greater celebration withinthe community, on the holiday."

As military victories go, the Mexican army scored a major upset over the French forces at La Batalla de Puebla to defend its territory. The Cinco de Mayo Con Orgullo Coalition knows that in its fight with breweries to defend a cultural holiday, it too faces long odds.

Gil Griffin, KPBS News.

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