“A lot of people say that Cinco de Mayo is like Independence Day, you know?” said Abraham de la Torre, a manager at Ole’s Guacamoles in Johnson City. “But no.”
Cinco de Mayo is not synonymous with the Fourth of July, as many tend to believe. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of a battle won in Puebla, Mexico—not a celebration of independence.
The Battle of Puebla came about after Mexico wanted a legal delay on paying debt to foreign countries. Troops from France, Spain and England were sent to Mexico looking for a fight. The Mexicans won, and the fifth day of May went down in history.
Mexican Independence Day isn’t until Sept. 16. Unlike Cinco de Mayo, this day celebrates the beginning of Mexico’s fight to gain independence from Spain. This struggle began when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest, raised a cry against Spain on Sept. 16, 1810.
After the rebel army was defeated, Hidalgo was beheaded by the Spanish Inquisition.
However, the spark of rebellion remained.
Decades later, Mexicans overcame their hardship and won their freedom from Spain. While this day is heavily celebrated in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not. In fact, Cinco de Mayo isn’t even considered a national holiday.
According to de la Torre, Cinco de Mayo is hardly celebrated at all in the majority of Mexico. A few celebrations are held in Puebla, but it’s not a nationwide party.
If that’s the case, how did it become so commonplace in the United States?
To Mexican restaurants around the country, Cinco de Mayo has become a huge draw for patrons.
“We don’t make a lot of money [on Cinco de Mayo] because we make a lot of specials, you know?” said de la Torre. “But it’s like tradition. On Cinco de Mayo it’s full. We start around 11 a.m. and go until, like 10 or 11 p.m., but people stay longer.”
The restaurant celebrates Cinco de Mayo every year. The event is wildly popular; guests are eager to get discounted margaritas and tacos. De la Torre said that the line of people waiting to be seated wraps around the building. Ole’s Guacamoles’ Facebook page explodes with Cinco de Mayo promotion posts. The restaurant decorates and offers specials on food and drinks. It even sells Cinco de Mayo t-shirts.
Much of the restaurant’s business comes from East Tennessee State University, which is only a few minutes away. As celebrated as the holiday seems in East Tennessee, de la Torre said that the festivities were even more vibrant in California.
Abraham de la Torre came to California from Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1988. He stayed there until 1992 before moving to Asheville, North Carolina. Then, he moved to Johnson City, where he’s lived for around four years.
Ole’s Guacamoles is a family business. De la Torre’s nephew, Alfredo, owns the restaurant. His brother owns the Black Mountain, North Carolina, location.
Family-owned businesses aren’t the only ones reaping the benefits of the holiday. Even chain restaurants like Ruby Tuesday notice an influx of patrons on Cinco de Mayo.
“Are we affected [by Cinco de Mayo]? Yes,” said Spencer Gentry, a bartender at Ruby Tuesday in Johnson City. "I believe that we sell more margaritas and tequila, like most places, on Cinco de Mayo. I have seen firsthand that Cinco de Mayo positively increases alcohol sales across the board.”
Why is a day that’s easily overlooked in Mexico such a celebrated day in the United States? The alcohol industry may be to blame.
According to de la Torre, companies like Corona and Dos Equis are a driving force behind Cinco de Mayo in the United States. Among the piñatas and jalapeno decorations, Ole’s Guacamoles is also decked out in Corona, Budweiser and Dos Equis advertisements. In May, it’s fairly common to see advertisements that read “Corona de Mayo.” Beer culture has inflated and created an entire holiday.
Casa Modelo, a Mexican beer brand, sells in the United States. Its website focuses on the culture behind the brand while also promoting the beer.
The ad copy pushes the idea that Cinco de Mayo is a time for celebration but also a remembrance of the Battle of Puebla. It tells of the bravery and strength of the Mexican warriors, who were victorious against all odds. At end of the ad copy, Casa Modelo urges readers to “raise a glass to the Fighting Spirit that pushes us forward.”
Beer and tacos aren’t the only things that fuel consumers this time of year. Mezcal and tequila are also driving forces of the holiday.
According to Nielsen, a global data analytics company that measures consumer action, the amount of mezcal purchased in stores in 2016 increased by 20 percent during the week before and the week of Cinco de Mayo. Tequila sales increased by 13 percent. On-premise sales, which refers to purchases made inside bars and restaurants, increased as well. On-premise mezcal sales were up by 20 percent from the previous year and brought in over $41 million.
Nakia Cyphers of Kingsport is a self-proclaimed beer connoisseur who enjoys going out on Cinco de Mayo. He doesn’t have a particular place to go; he just seeks the bargains. To him, the specials on food and drinks are unbeatable.
“It’s all about the specials,” said Cyphers. “That’s all there is to it.”
Above, right: Abraham de la Torre says customers line up to celebrate on May 5.
Left: Beer companies send promotional items every year to encourage the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. Photos: Contributed