You might not expect to find many authentic representations of Mexican culture in Munich. Thousands of miles and the vast Atlantic Ocean lie between the cold heart of central Europe and the sunny New World, and there aren’t many strong political or cultural ties between the two. But at the restaurant La Taquería by Cometa, the focus is on real food and drink from Mexico, which expat owner Ivan Najera fondly remembers from his homeland. His restaurant’s website repeatedly uses the words “authentic” and “genuine,” before adding a subtle dig at Americanized recipes: “Goodbye, Tex-Mex!”
In part, that means that dishes like chili con carne and hard-shell tacos aren’t on the menu. But to the surprise of many visitors, that also means that Najera doesn’t schedule any special events for Cinco de Mayo.
“We don’t plan something, as we want it to be as authentic as it can be,” he says. “I guess that’s more like a Mexican-American tradition.”
He’s correct. Despite its origins in southeastern Mexico, Cinco de Mayo has become one of — if not the — largest drinking holidays in the United States after the regional importers of Corona and Modelo launched a Cinco de Mayo ad campaign in 1989. In the 34 years since that boozy marketing push, what was once a small, regional holiday in Mexico — and an emerging stateside celebration of Mexican-American culture generally — has become a giant “fiesta Mexicana” that many erroneously think of as Mexico’s Independence Day, though that holiday is actually on Sept. 16.
But people looking to party in Munich next week shouldn’t worry: Najera’s taquería might not have anything scheduled, but other Cinco de Mayo parties have been announced elsewhere. And not just in Germany. Despite the fact that it isn’t celebrated to the same degree in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo has now spread around the globe, with bar-and-restaurant-based celebrations of tacos and tequila taking place everywhere from Dublin, Ireland to Mumbai, India.
A Festive (Foreign) Atmosphere
There’s little awareness of Cinco de Mayo in China, according to David Muñoz Oliveros, who works for Vitae Spirits, an importer of tequila, mezcal, pisco, and other drinks from Mexico and Latin America. Although his company supplies over 200 restaurants and cocktail bars across China, Mexican culture is still something of a novelty there, he says, though the situation is changing. To that end, many of his bar and restaurant clients are using Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to get the word out.
“They’re all doing promotions for the event,” he says. “Most of them will have a Margarita-and-tacos deal. It’s kind of a party — they try to have Mexican music, really good decorations, and Margarita deals.”
That might sound a lot like Cinco de Mayo celebrations in the United States, though he notes that there’s generally less emphasis on the booze and more on the food in the versions in China. That corresponds to the growing local interest in Mexican cooking.
“I would say, besides Italian food, Mexican food is the other foreign cuisine that the Chinese consume a lot,” he says. “Since Mexican food is also spicy and it also has a lot of condiments, it’s closer to what Chinese people like.”
That interest, he says, swelled after the 2017 release of the Pixar movie “Coco,” which was surprisingly more successful in China than it was in the United States.
“When ‘Coco’ came to China a few years ago, it really put Mexican culture on the map,” he says. “I have seen an increase in Mexican restaurants and more sales of tequila, thanks to that movie.”
Speaking from his Shanghai office, he runs down a list of bars and restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing that will host Cinco de Mayo parties. Several of them will offer special cocktails, he notes. And while recorded soundtracks will sound fine, he acknowledges that it’s hard to get traditional live musicians.
“There’s not really mariachis to help create the festive atmosphere here,” he says. “There’s only one real mariachi guy, but he’s in Guangzhou.”
Different Food and Drink
For many Mexicans, the food and drink choices make American-style Cinco de Mayo celebrations stand out from their Mexican origins. Originally from Mexico City, Emmanuel Rivero is the owner of Cucina Rivero, an international cooking school in Prague, Czech Republic. For him, the global May 5 holiday doesn’t really feel like a party back home.
“What you guys do is you drink Margaritas and eat burritos and hard-shell tacos, which we don’t eat,” he says. “We don’t drink Margaritas that often.”
Nor is Cinco de Mayo — which commemorates Mexico’s victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 — widely celebrated outside the region of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City. Instead, the real national party is on Mexico’s actual Independence Day, Sept. 16, which many people celebrate slightly early.
“We celebrate on the 15th,” he says. “Everybody celebrates it the night before. That’s really the day when you are celebrating in Mexico.”
Instead of crunchy, hard-shell tacos, he describes a traditional celebration as one with pozole — a hearty hominy stew — some tostadas, lots of music and plenty of pre-midnight shouts of “Viva México!” Although Margaritas are not as common in Mexico as they are in the States, there isn’t another specific drink for the September party: Cuba Libres, Palomas, and Micheladas are all popular choices, he says. Spirits like tequila are sipped slowly, not shot in a quick gulp, often as a bandera, or “flag,” with the spirit served neat in a small glass along with a similarly sized glass of fresh lime juice and another of sangrita, a spiced, nonalcoholic sipper made with orange juice, tomato juice, or a mix of the two. Sipped carefully, the alternating flavors from each glass bring the complex flavors into focus. And, more importantly, they look patriotic. “It’s called the flag because it makes the three colors of the flag,” Rivero says. “That’s what we drink.”
While he is not bothered by Cinco de Mayo’s success outside the country, others sound more critical. When I reach out to my friend Edu Villegas at Cerveza Tatuaje, a cult craft brewery in Mexico City, to ask what he thinks about Cinco de Mayo going global, he doesn’t mince his words: “At the end of the day,” he says, “this ‘celebration’ is a distortion of our real celebrations and a cliché.”
A Free Ambassador
But it’s not all downside. Cinco de Mayo might not be widely celebrated in Mexico, to the surprise of many Americans. (As one Redditor just posted in response to a question about Cinco de Mayo in the Mexico City subreddit: “Sorry you had to find out like this. Taco Tuesday is a lie, too.”) Yet the festival’s international popularity does help get the word out about Mexican food and drink, working as a free ambassador for the country’s culture.
Some entrepreneurs say that you might as well embrace it.
“If you have a restaurant or you have a Latino bar or a Mexican bar, you probably do something for Cinco de Mayo, because everyone knows what it is,” Rivero says. “Why not?” While he was initially shocked to learn about the popularity of the holiday outside Mexico, he notes that he finally offered a Mexican-themed class at his international cooking school for Cinco de Mayo last year.
In addition to free promotion, the date can fit in nicely with local celebrations. In Germany, Najera says that Cinco de Mayo arrives right after what often feels like the last days of winter. “At least in Europe, it’s like the start of spring, officially, because sometimes it’s very, very cold still,” he says. That matches up with local interest in starting to go out again, unlike Mexico’s actual Independence Day on Sept. 16, the very middle of a hectic, back-to-school month.
Similarly, China’s Cinco de Mayo parties arrive at about the same time as another local event. Saturday, May 6, will be a regular working day in the country this year, as a substitution for the three May Day holidays taking place earlier in the work week, which probably makes a Margarita-fueled evening on Friday, May 5, a bad idea. Instead, many Mexican bars and restaurants are scheduling their Cinco de Mayo parties for May 1 or 2, Muñoz Oliveros says, alongside the traditional May Day festivities.
While the international popularity of Cinco de Mayo can come as a surprise to many in Mexico, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a bit like the success of “Dinner for One,” a British play from 1934 that later became a cult favorite in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and across Scandinavia, playing on New Year’s Eve every year for the last six decades for reasons no one really seems to understand. It also resembles the superstar status in South Africa of the long-disappeared American musician Rodriguez in the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Sometimes an element of culture leaves its country of origin and gets picked up in another land, where it becomes much more important than it was back home. For many Mexicans around the world, that’s not a problem. But, Rivero says, they’re also kind of tired of the confusion around the date.
“I’m not saying let’s ban it, let’s not celebrate it,” he says. “But you know, it would probably be nice to clarify that it’s not our Independence Day.”