Today is Cinco de Mayo, which means if you’re American you’re likely celebrating by hitting up your favorite dive bar, chowing down on some $2 tacos, and washing it all down with a cheap margarita (hopefully you have the sense not to don a sombrero and poncho and shout “aye aye aye!” throughout the night, but trust me — it still happens). If you’re Mexican or Mexican American, on the other hand, you might not be celebrating anything (unless you literally live in the town of Puebla). From my experience, even young Mexican Americans don’t really vibe with Cinco de Mayo the way the Chicano college students of the ‘60s did.
That generation found resonance in a story of outnumbered Mexicans resisting a powerful white colonial invader, which… sounds pretty damn good. But ever since the holiday was co-opted by beer companies in the ‘80s, it has always served as a weird caricature of Mexican identity and, like St. Patrick’s Day, an excuse for conservative America to get sh*t-faced in the middle of the week while in (if not blatantly offensive, then certainly annoyingly reductive) costume. So before you don that sombrero, put on your favorite Bad Bunny record (he’s Puerto Rican, by the way), and start making finger guns before every shot of tequila, may I suggest — maybe you don’t?
I’m not even speaking on some “don’t wear my culture like a costume” stuff. I can’t speak for all Mexican Americans and Latinx people, but I can tell you that the people I grew up with living in the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles — first generation, second generation, and Dreamers, as well as our parents — don’t really care about that. We know Cinco de Mayo is for the gringos now. All I’m saying is…
Okay, fine — let’s talk about the sombreros for a second.
I truly don’t care or take offense to anybody wearing a poncho and sombrero on Cinco de Mayo (I get it, Clint Eastwood made it look dope and ya’ll love cowboys) but you should ask yourself when you do that, “why, exactly, am I doing it?” When you wear artifacts and emblems of a colonized people’s culture, what does that say about your relationship, as an American, to these communities, and more importantly, what does it say about you? Only you can know that and as long as you can live with it, great. But you have to admit that it might speak differently to a person who comes from those cultures and sees an element of parody or derision in your actions. And, you must admit, life is not simply about what we do, it’s also how our actions are perceived. After all, “we’re LIVING IN A SOCIETY!”
So go ahead and wear that sombrero. But if you’re going to skirt the line between cultural respect and making a mockery (intentionally, unintentionally, or even well-intentioned-ally) of Mexican culture, I do have one ask of you: stop devaluing the food and drinks you order while wearing said sombrero. Because in 2022, after so many foodservice businesses were devastated by the pandemic, it’s definitely time to ditch the assumption that anything Mexican should be cheap. It’s actually probably about 50 years late, but whatever.
Do you know why you love Mexican food and spirits? Because they’re good. Do you know why you associate them with being cheap? Because immigrants in America have routinely had to devalue their own cultural offerings to match the perceptions of Europeans regarding what food does and doesn’t cost a lot. $5 for a croissant made of literally flour, water, and butter but only $2 for a taco made of meat, a corn tortilla, onions, tomatoes, cilantro? Get the f*ck out of here.
Point being, you’ve been conditioned to expect this food to be cheap because for generations people have had to keep margins low in order to meet customer expectations. Kind of gross,, right? If you really want your stomach to turn read “The Future Is Expensive Chinese Food,” written by Joe Pinsker for The Atlantic. In the piece, Pinsker quotes an associate professor of food studies at NYU, Krishnendu Ray, who writes on the “hierarchy of taste”:
“This hierarchy, which privileges paninis over tortas is almost completely shaped by a simple rule: The more capital or military power a nation wields and the richer its emigrants are, the more likely its cuisine will command higher prices.”
Ew. Just ew. Long story short, the reason you’re always bragging about how cheap your favorite tacos and burritos are is because… they shouldn’t be. Your stomach knows that and it’s time for your brain to catch up.
What do you find in your local taqueria? Slow-cooked beans that were soaked and simmered for hours before becoming tender, fluffy, and exploding with flavor. Braised meats that marinate in mouthwatering spices and require a skilled hand to cook properly. Tortillas made (by hand!) from heirloom corn, using techniques that go back millennia and are native to this land. Salsas and guacamole bursting with palate-enveloping flavors crushed and ground out by the strongest forearms you’ve ever seen on a little old Grandma.
And that same level of craft and care go into Mexican spirits. The best bottles of tequila and mezcal you’ve ever sipped (sip the good stuff, dammit!) were produced by the hands of farmworkers who spend their lives toiling in fields harvesting agave at exactly the right moment and use elaborate and traditional methods to roast and extract that agave. Your margarita shouldn’t be cheaper, that jimador deserves a raise!
This food and drink require labor, love, and skill, just as much as more valued cuisines like Italian, Japanese, or French. So if you’d like to really celebrate Cinco de Mayo, start by appreciating Mexican food and craft for the marvel that it is.
If you’re having a hard time doing that, a new generation of Mexican American chefs like Wes Avila (Guerrilla Tacos, Ka’teen), Carlos Salgado (Coi, Commis), and James Beard Award winner Bricia Lopez-Maytorena (Guelaguetza) will help guide you. Through their respective restaurants, they’re making great efforts to elevate people’s idea of what Mexican food is and can be. You should follow them and if you’re in their respective cities, eat your big Cinco de Mayo dinners there.
So what are we saying here, don’t support cheap taco places anymore and only buy food from chefs putting that gourmet spin on the cuisine? No, definitely do both. But the next time you pick up that $5 bundle of tacos that you know should cost more from that hole-in-the-wall taqueria that has always been in your neighborhood, leave a fat tip for the hard workers breaking their backs in the kitchen. And on the flip side, the next time you hear someone complain about how expensive a taco is, slap that taco out of their mouth. They don’t deserve to eat it.
It’s the least you can do, it is Cinco de Mayo after all. You know, Mexican Independence Day (nope, just joking).
I leave you today with one of my favorite quotes from the late Anthony Bourdain — a person who truly understood the value of Mexican contribution to the United States — in the hopes that some of his brilliance will rub off on every American who celebrates Cinco de Mayo today and in the years to come.
Americans love Mexican food. We consume nachos, tacos, burritos, tortillas, enchiladas, tamales, and anything resembling Mexican in enormous quantities. We love Mexican beverages, happily knocking back huge amounts of tequila, mezcal, Mexican beer. We love Mexican people. We sure employ a lot of them. Despite our ridiculously hypocritical attitudes towards immigration we demand that Mexicans cook a large percentage of the food we eat, grow the ingredients we need to make that food, clean our houses, mow our laws, wash our dishes, and look after our children. Any chef will tell you our entire service economy, the restaurant business as we know it in most American cities would collapse overnight without Mexican workers.
Dig that? Great! Now it’s time to start acting like it.