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A Cinco de Mayo celebration in St. Paul, Minnesota shows how Mexican-Americans use the event to showcase their culture. (PHOTO: Rena Dehler/Wikipedia)

Does Cinco de Mayo celebrate Mexican culture or margaritas?

This article originally ran in 2017.

We're pretty good at adopting other cultures' holidays, it seems, and turning them into annual drinking events. It is often said, for example, that the Irish don't celebrate St. Patrick's Day like Americans do (though that appears to be changing).

Consider, too, Cinco de Mayo, which takes place this week.

"Cinco de Mayo, which is Spanish for May 5," wrote German Lopez in Vox a couple years ago, "is supposed to celebrate Mexican heritage, (but) it has become Americanized – that is, hijacked into another excuse to party, eat and drink, all while getting sweet discounts at some restaurants. (It is so Americanized, in fact, that it's actually celebrated more in the U.S. than in Mexico.)"

Is it true that Mexico doesn't celebrate it like Americans do?

I wanted to find out, so I called the United Community Center, 1028 S. 9th St. in Walker's Point, which offers a wide range of services and cultural programming to the Hispanic community on the near South Side – which has a large Mexican-American population – and spoke to Executive Director Ricardo Diaz.

"It's always been an opportunity for the Americans to have a nice party and go out and celebrate," he told me. "It is confused with the independence of Mexico, which is Sept. 16, which is a real holiday that is celebrated in Mexico."

Cinco de Mayo celebrates the unexpected and unlikely victory of Mexican troops over French forces in the Battle of Puebla during the Franco-Mexican War in 1862. While the Puebla still marks the occasion, it does so in a more solemn way than we do here.

"It's usually with parades and events of that kind," said Diaz, who is of Cuban descent himself and has been UCC director for 14 years. "It is not a federal holiday, it's a normal day of work. Banks are open, governmental offices are open. It is not like when we celebrate the Fourth of July or anything like that."

In the United States, some non-Mexicans prefer to celebrate the day with a Corona or six. I asked Diaz if that's a point of contention among Mexican-Americans.

"People joke around in the population at large, it's more for the beer companies and others to celebrate it as such, not the Mexican population itself," he said.

"I don't know that when it's that kind of a discussion, that someone starts to give it a lot of thought other than kind of laugh it off, so to speak. I don't know that a lot of time is spent thinking about it."

Even if Mexico itself doesn't give Cinco de Mayo more than a passing nod, Diaz said that Mexican-Americans have embraced it.

"It became popular in the U.S. through Mexicans here in the U.S., who took it as a way to celebrate their culture," he said, "and it's taken on a kind of life of its own. Non-profit organizations use it as a way of celebrating culture."

And that's just what the United Community Center is doing.

The UCC hosts its annual Anniversary Dinner at 5 p.m. on Friday, May 5 with a reception, dinner and program that will include performances by the Latino Arts String Program, Proyecto Bembe and the Bruce-Guadalupe Community School Jazz Band.

The event will also recognize accomplishments in education and health care.

"We always celebrate our annual dinner the last week of April, or first week of May, in that time period, usually depending on when Easter falls," Diaz said. "We thought it would be a wonderful opportunity because of the kind of cultural and artistic organization that we are with our kids."

More than 200 students from the UCC charter schools will perform.

"It's an opportunity for us to showcase those talents, and it happens to coincide. So, we are able to bring those two together, and celebrate it, "Diaz said. "We're celebrating our 47th anniversary. We're the 17th largest Hispanic organization in the country. So it really is an opportunity for us to tell the story annually of the success of a lot of kids.

"It really is a proud, very talented group of children that are giving meaning to the holiday, and really what it means, it's really the celebration of a wonderful culture and heritage."

For more on the UCC event visit unitedcc.org/2017AnniversaryDinner.htm.


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