Working on my third career - experimental journalism about the border, immigration & politics.
The American Story Of Cinco De Mayo
A version of this article was originally published on the author’s Mexico Studies webpage on May 4, 2017. It has been updated throughout.
México is celebrated in the United States every May 5th. Not because everyone loves México but because a beer company invented a holiday to make Mexican beer the only beer for the frat boys celebrating a country they know little about. The story of Cinco de Mayo is two stories in one - a historical record of Mexicans who fought against foreign interlopers, and a Mexican beer company trying to correct a wrong. It is the story of two underdogs trying to compete in an unfair world. It is a story that shows defeatism can be overcome.
On the beer front, the story is simple. Grupo Modelo, a Mexican beer company founded in 1925 started to export its beer - Corona - to the United States in 1981. By 1986, Corona was the second most consumed beer in the United States. The number one beer at the time was Heineken. Corona’s meteoric rise in the U.S. market left competitors puzzled and jealous. The Mexican beer company was eroding the American beer market share and it bothered the American beer manufacturers. The Heineken beer wholesaler in Reno, Nevada responded to the eroding market share by creating a lie to destroy the Mexican beer brand. Luce & Son, Inc. started the rumor that Corona beer was contaminated with human urine.
Because it was a beer from México, the U.S. public heartily took in the rumor as fact, even though it was based on a lie.
The response to the rumor was immediate, Corona’s market share dropped by as much as 80%. Corona’s importer, Barton Beers, Ltd., tracked down the rumor to Luce & Sons. Barton sued the Heineken distributor for $3 million in 1987 for lying about the Mexican beer. A few months later, Luce & Sons admitted publicly that Corona beer was “free of contamination” as part of its out of court settlement.
Despite the court settlement, the rumors persisted in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Illinois, Minnesota, Texas, Wisconsin and Washington. The damage had been done and Barton Beers needed to get Corona beer sales to rise again.
What Corona beer needed was an excuse for consumers to consume Mexican beer - preferably Corona.
In 1989, a San Antonio-based beer importer, Gambrinus launched a marketing scheme around the little-known Cinco de Mayo Chicano holiday. The advertising campaign by the Richards Group has made Cinco de Mayo synonymous with drinking Corona beer. (see note below) It also created an unofficial second Independence Day for Mexicans in America.
Today, Cinco de Mayo is ranked seventh on the list of days when beer is most consumed in the U.S., according to the National Beer Wholesalers Association.
In 2020, there was more beer consumed on Cinco de Mayo, then there was on St. Patrick’s Day or NCAA basketball. America is the second-largest beer market in the world today. The most popular beer brand today is - Corona beer.
Although many Cinco de Mayo celebrants believe that they are celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day, what they are celebrating is the Battle of Puebla. The Battle of Puebla is when a ragtag Mexican Army beat the strongest army of the day - the French invaders under Napoleon III.
Ethnic holidays in the United States are big spending days for U.S. consumers. St. Patrick’s Day embraces the Irish in the country. But the history of Mexican immigrants in the United States is a complex cultural identity dilemma between American-born Mexican-Americans and recent Mexican immigrants making their homes in America.
The cultural identity quandary is based on unresolved animosities between the Mexicans that suddenly became U.S. citizens after the United States took almost half of México, and the Mexicans who remained in México. Recent Mexican immigrants carry with them the mental stigma of losing half of México, while dealing with the resentment and animosity from the inhabitants of areas to which they immigrate to in search of jobs. In México sin sentido, Guillermo Hurtado wrote that Mexicans are “imprisoned by defeatism” due to the circumstances of México’s historical record of invasions and violence. Defeatism is the psychology that dominates the Mexican psyche.
In the 1960’s, the Mexican Americans embolden by the successes of the civil rights movements across the United States, organized themselves under the Chicano movement. The unresolved cultural identity crisis between the U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and the newly arrived Mexican immigrants made it difficult for the two diverging groups to embrace the Mexican Independence Day as the unifying day for celebrating their ethnic identity. Diez y seis de septiembre was too Mexican for the U.S. citizens of Mexican descendants in the lost Mexican territories. Other ethnic groups in the United States did not see Mexican Independence Day as a celebration day.
What was needed was a unifying day to commemorate the Mexican culture - or Mexicanism - in the U.S. without it being too Mexican. The Battle of Puebla was the day that all groups could embrace because it provided a rare and uncontested win for the Mexican state under overwhelming forces. It helped that it tied directly to the core of the U.S. identity - the support of a neighbor who helped to keep the Union together during the Civil War.
While the French were intent on establishing a monarchy, under the domain of the French in México, Americans were fighting the American Civil War. The French were backing the Confederacy during the Civil War, making the French an enemy to the Union, Abraham Lincoln and of México.
When the Mexican Army defeated the French invaders at Puebla, it did not end the French invasion of México, but it celebrated that a ragtag group of Mexicans could beat the best of the world. Adding to the unification narrative was the hero of the Battle of Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza.
Zaragoza was born in present day Goliad, Texas while it was still a Mexican territory. Zaragoza, a Tejano, bridged the divide between the inhabitants of the lost Mexican territories with those who remained in México. Zaragoza represented the unifying marker needed to celebrate Mexicanismo without it being too Mexican. It helped that Zaragoza was from Texas, one of the lost territories.
The Batalla de Puebla also provided common ground for other U.S. ethnic groups to celebrate a Mexican holiday that had a common enemy for all - the French. It connected everyone to the history of the United States through the Civil War.
Cinco de Mayo was a Chicano holiday celebrated in Chicano enclaves that most Americans did not know existed. What the Corona beer brand needed was something to build a marketing brand around to regrow its market share. The beer had been popular with the surfer crowds prior to the rumors of tainted beer. It just needed them to come back. To do so, they needed to create an ethnic identity around a Mexican brand.
The Chicano Cinco de Mayo celebrations was perfect to rebrand Corona beer in the American market. It had ethnic Mexicans celebrating their cultural identity. Corona just needed to convince them to buy Mexican beer to make the celebration truly ethnic-centric. And thus, the Cinco de Mayo holiday was born.
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Battle of Puebla where a ragtag Mexican army subdued the world’s best military force by vanquishing the arrogance of the French invaders who considered themselves invincible. The French overconfidence never contemplated the idea that Mexicans could beat them in battle. The Mexican resolve had been underestimated, much to the chagrin of Napoleon III.
The Dutch brand - Heineken - also believed it could beat the Mexican beer challenging its beer dominance. It started the rumor of urine in Corona beer to stop it from overtaking it. In the end, the beer distributor who started the rumor was forced to issue a public retraction and today, Corona ranks as most popular beer in the United States, while Heineken is fourth. Heineken not only continues to lag Corona, but it has three Mexican brands as part of its repertoire. They are Carta Blanca, Dos Equis, Sol and Tecate.
A Mexican beer brand and a Mexican ragtag army stood up to the dominant forces of their time and beat them. The battle and the beer branding built a bridge between native Mexicans and Mexican Americans in America. It also demonstrates that Mexicans will overcome when required. That is the true meaning behind Cinco de Mayo that everyone should raise their glasses to on Cinco de Mayo. #CincoDeMayo #beer #history #Mexico
Note: the original source for Gambrinus is not available online. The source is the May 3, 2014 Star-Telegram article; “The Cinco de Mayo battle was in Mexico, but the marketing is made in Texas” by Bud Kennedy.<!/e0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-8-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-2-0-0-5-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-3-3-0-0-2-0-0-0-0-0-2-0-0-0-4-0-0>