New York City is playing catch up to the rest of the country in celebrating Cinco de Mayo.
The holiday has long been celebrated in Los Angeles and Chicago, which have sizeable, long standing Mexican populations, but its popularity here gained traction only in the last several decades as the Mexican population of NYC increased, said Arlene Torres, an anthropology professor at the Center of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College.
Yes, the holiday has been seized by marketers to peddle tacos and Tecate, “but the marketing is informed by what the businesses see culturally and how consumers are responding: It’s a feedback loop,” Torres explained.
Census figures say only 3.7% of New Yorkers are of Mexican origin, but all Latinos are historically undercounted in the Census, Torres said.
NYC is now enjoying the fiesta: The Cinco de Mayo Parade from 108th and Central Park West to 96th St. began five years ago to acknowledge the burgeoning influence of Mexican-Americans in NYC. The Club Atletico Mexicano de Nueva York is hosting its 16th annual 5K walk and run, and margarita specials abound on what is known in Mexico as El Día de la Batalla de Puebla.
“Even Irish pubs celebrate” Cinco de Mayo now, said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance. While Valentine's Day generates more revenue from dinners for the city's 24,000 eating and drinking establishments, Cinco de Mayo generates bigger bar tabs from the groups that raise their vasos in the May weather, he said. After a long winter, “people are looking for a reason to celebrate,” said Rigie. The holiday is also helpd along by traditionally balmy weather the first week of May, when restaurant proprieters open up their shuttered roof top bars and dormant outdoor cafes, Rigie said.
“We are 80 to 90% busier on Cinco de Mayo than on an average weekend,” said David Gonzalez, manager of the Chelsea restaurant Suenos. “It's very, very busy. Very hectic,” and the rush begins with huevos rancheros at brunch, Gonzalez said.
The first week of May, there is always an uptick in orders for cilantro, tomatoes, avocados and limes - the ingredients for guacamole - observed Jimmy Cortez, 42, a manager at the Stiles Farmers Market in midtown. Cortez, a native of Puebla, has long been amused to see "the American people celebrating the (Mexican) holiday," chiefly by consuming Dos Equis, Coronas and Tecates.
"I don't understand why the Americans celebrate Cinco de Mayo!" chorused Epifanio Cruz, 28, the head cook at midtown's Blockheads who is originally from Mexico City. He's not complaining, though: Business is loco every May 5. "I'm happy the people here like it!" he said. The celebration "is good for the Mexicans: My boss makes more money," and so Mexican employees - who are profligately represented in restaurant work - profit as well, said Cruz.
Many multi-generational Americans may be ignorant about the significance of Cinco de Mayo, "but these celebrations are good for developing relationship and developing curiosity about a culture and a people," said Torres. "Post-Sandy, we really need to encourage people to go out, and encourage business. It's good for the city and for the people who need to make a living. They're pleased to be employed and to share their culture."
Yes indeed, said Manuel Solalo, 46, a counterman for International Foods who lives in Astoria. He is touched, if perplexed, to see Americans observing a holiday that commemorates the indomitable spirit of the Mexican people. "A lot of Americans know about the holiday," said Solalo, who came to the U.S. from Oaxaca at the age of 16. "I like how everyone comes together to celebrate,” said Solalo, adding, “it's good to see everyone enjoying it together."
THE MEANING OF THE HOLIDAY
Cinco de Mayo, or the Fifth of May, commemorates the 1862 victory of 4,000 machete-wielding Mexicans over 8,000 well-equipped French troops in the Mexican state of Puebla. As Mexican holidays go, El Día de la Batalla de Puebla is not nearly important as Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16, but Cinco de Mayo caught the popular imagination in the United States. The triumph on May 5 invigorated the Mexican resistance, but within a year, the well-provisioned French had captured Mexico City.