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Hispanic activists say Cinco de Mayo being co-opted by alcohol

Sunday, May 4, 2003

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- At the Cinco de Mayo celebrations of his childhood, John Zamora remembers the sound of mariachis, the taste of tamales and mischievous kids cracking confetti-filled eggshells on each other's heads.

When Zamora became a father, he brought his own children to the celebrations, then his grandchildren. But the crowds got bigger and people were drinking too much. Finally, he stopped going.

Now head of the Cinco de Mayo parade committee in San Jose, the 67-year-old Zamora wants to return to the family-oriented festivities he remembers.

"I didn't feel it was safe anymore to take my grandchildren," Zamora said. "We're bringing it back."

Sunday's parade, which will be alcohol- and tobacco-free, is being hailed as a small victory by some Hispanic activists who say the alcohol industry has co-opted their holiday. With the slogan "Our culture is not for sale," Latinos & Latinas for Health Justice is holding alcohol- and tobacco-free events in California and Arizona this weekend as part of its Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo (Fifth of May with Pride) campaign.

"I want them to know the true meaning. It's not a drinking holiday," said Jovita Juarez, chair of the Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo festival in San Diego. "We want the alcohol industry to stop. We want our holiday back."

She and others blame alcohol companies for turning Cinco de Mayo into a rowdy holiday more commonly associated with tequila shots and beer specials than with Hispanic heritage -- though industry representatives say people are free to celebrate as they choose.

Now in its sixth year, the activists' campaign has caught on in 24 California cities, 12 counties and Tucson, Ariz. Latinos & Latinas for Health Justice, a network of health, substance abuse prevention and community advocates, also is promoting the effort in seven other states.

But some say the bans on alcohol and tobacco go too far.

"We see nothing wrong with adults celebrating Cinco de Mayo with a margarita or other tequila cocktail as long as it is done responsibly and in moderation," said Patrick MacElroy, a spokesman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

Many mistakenly believe Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day. Actually, it commemorates the victory of a small, ill-equipped Mexican army over French troops on May 5, 1862. In Mexico, the holiday is a relatively minor one that is not as widely celebrated as the real Mexican Independence Day, on Sept. 16.

But on this side of the border, Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a "uniquely American phenomenon" similar to St. Patrick's Day -- a holiday embraced with an exuberance not historically seen back in the home country, said Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza.

In the 1960s, the Chicano movement adopted Cinco de Mayo as a symbol of pride in Hispanic culture and identity. Beer and liquor companies have been heavily promoting it in recent years.

Corona, the most popular Mexican beer in the United States, has previously pitched itself as the "drinko for Cinco." This year, it calls itself "the original party beer of Cinco de Mayo."

"Every holiday of the year represents a promotion opportunity for brands and retailers," said Don Mann, marketing general manager at The Gambrinus Company, the San Antonio, Texas-based importer for Corona. With Cinco de Mayo, "everyone's tried to get in on it. The leading domestic brands, they all have Cinco de Mayo promotions."

Activists' focus on Cinco de Mayo seems arbitrary, Mann said. "Why would Cinco de Mayo be different than any other holiday in the U.S. or Mexico when consumers are free to drink and celebrate as they choose?" he said.

But Juarez -- organizer of the San Diego festival -- remembers partying that got out of hand. When she was younger, she'd toss back drinks on Cinco de Mayo as bartenders asked "Are you ready for another one?"

Then one holiday weekend 20 years ago, her fiance died in a drunk driving accident. After that, Juarez stopped drinking.

In San Jose, Zamora and other community leaders stepped in when a group that has held the city's Cinco de Mayo parade for 26 years said it was canceling this year. This is an opportunity to "bring the fiesta back to the local people," said Zamora, noting that its theme will be "Our Children, Our Future."

"We can dress ourselves in our cultural outfits, hear our music, eat our food and share it with everybody," Zamora said. "It's one day we can be Mexicans, just like you can be Irish for one day."

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