As San Diego's party people dust off their sombreros and break out shot glass bandoleers in anticipation of Cinco de Mayo, a coalition of local Latino groups, community organizations, local leaders and public health agencies is working to reclaim one of the Hispanic culture's most misunderstood holidays.
Dubbed the Cinco de Mayo Con Orgullo (with pride) Coalition, the group is angry at the perceived co-opting of a cultural event by the alcohol industry.
"The Hispanic community feels like the alcohol industry demeans their culture by sponsoring [Cinco de Mayo] events and advertising to promote drinking," says Connie Dahl, a Con Orgullo Coalition board member. "They also feel that it encourages underage drinking and heavy consumption of alcohol, which the Latino community already has a problem with."
Dahl has the data to prove that last part.
According to a series of related studies compiled by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth:
* Young Hispanics are more likely to drink and to get drunk at an earlier age than non-Hispanic white or African-American young people.
* Mexican and Cuban 12- to 17-year-olds are more likely to "binge" drink than the general population in that age group.
* Alcohol contributes to the three leading causes of death among Hispanic 12- to 20-year-olds: unintentional injuries (including car crashes), homicide and suicide.
* Hispanic high school students are more likely than non-Hispanic white or African-American students to report riding in a car with a driver who had been drinking.
With all of that in mind, Dahl says the Con Orgullo movement is not about tee totaling or breaking up the party. Rather, the group's reacting to the defamation of a cultural event. "It's not appropriate," she says. "It's as if we were going to turn Christmas, a Christian holiday, into a drink fest. Do you think the Christians would stand for that? I don't think so. It would be demeaning."
Ads imploring people to be Mexican for a day and to "save a lime, open a Heineken" are not a new phenomenon nor are the issues surrounding Cinco de Mayo. Alcohol companies have promoted Cinco de Mayo as a drinking occasion for decades. In response, the Con Orgullo movement was launched in 1997 in 12 California cities-2001 in San Diego-and has gained ground in an uphill battle ever since.
Jovita Juarez, chair of the San Diego coalition, says the message-keep your money-grubbing hands off of our holiday-has been well received by the public, and this year related events will be hosted in 32 California cities as well as eight other states.
The local coalition will host an event in Balboa Park on Wednesday to raise awareness for the issue and promote its third-annual non-alcoholic parade and festival on Sunday. Organizers say they expect more than 10,000 people to attend.
However, unlike many other California Con Orgullo groups, the San Diego coalition will not support this year's controversial boycott of Anheuser-Busch. "It's like boycotting toothpaste," says Dahl, pointing out that in addition to being unrealistic, the boycott ignores Corona, Tecate and every other beer and alcohol company that uses Cinco de Mayo to sell more drinks. "What we want to do is raise understanding and respect for the cultural holiday and I don't think that boycotting an alcohol company is a good way to [do that]."
When asked if the San Diego group was promoting Con Orgullo lite, Juarez said organizers were simply focused on keeping the message positive and wary of turning off participants. "We don't want to do that here in San Diego because that makes people think we are activists," she said. "We want to encourage good things."
In response to the boycott elsewhere, Jesus Rangel, vice president of sales development and community relations for Anheuser-Busch, issued a statement on the company's consumer awareness and education website. It reads, in part:
"Our ads and promotional materials reflect America's diversity. To suggest that people of a particular racial or ethnic origin should be "protected' from certain types of advertising is elitist, condescending and insulting."
But George Belch, chair of the marketing department at San Diego State University, says boycott or no, marketing pressure will only increase as alcohol companies and every other corporation with something to sell compete to gain a larger piece of the Hispanic market, one of largest consumer pies in America.
"They are a big market segment that has unique needs and wants and tastes and preferences and marketers are going to respond to that," he says. "That's just what marketers do. If they stopped all their marketing, would people still drink? Yes. Are they adding fuel to the fire? Yes. I think it's synergistic."
But Ternot MacRenato, a professor of Chicano studies at San Diego City College, says Chicano groups in the 1960s and 1970s were, ironically, the first to use Cinco de Mayo as a marketing tool in an attempt to create a sense of national pride among Mexican-American immigrants.
Often confused with Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16), Cinco de Mayo is the anniversary of the victory of Mexican peasants over heavily armed French forces at the 1862 Battle of Puebla. A symbolic triumph of the Mexican spirit, MacRenato says the anniversary was adopted and promoted as a source of Mexican pride by the Chicano movement in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.
As a result, the holiday today enjoys more prominence in the United States than Mexico, and, MacRenato says, the marketing tactics of the past have since come back to bite the Chicano movement in the ass.
"Alcohol is a problem in the community," he says. "The alcohol companies target people and the bars do a big promotion. It has taken away from the actual civic pride or patriotism and goes into just a drinking binge."
It's not hard to find local examples of the alcohol industry's influence on Cinco de Mayo. As an example, Dahl points to Old Town's annual Fiesta Cinco de Mayo scheduled for May 1-2. Attracting more than 100,000 participants, the Fiesta is billed as the largest Cinco de Mayo event in San Diego and the third largest Hispanic cultural event in the United States.
Despite the inclusion of a reenactment of the Battle of Puebla, traditional music, dancing and Ballet Folklorico, Dahl says the Old Town Fiesta is essentially tainted by the money it receives from sponsorship by companies like Budweiser, Jose Cuervo and Cointreu.
But event organizers say sponsorship is just sponsorship, and doesn't influence the Fiesta. "The event doesn't serve alcoholic beverages," says Katie Schultz, a managing partner for the Boarder Agency, a marketing firm that produces the Fiesta. "It's kind of a misnomer that people assume that they are in Old Town and it's a drinking event."
Shultz says the Fiesta is a family event and it's the bars and restaurants in the Historic Old Town San Diego State Park and surrounding 22-block area that provide the booze.
John Castillo, special markets manager for Anheuser-Busch Sales of San Diego, says his company uses the Fiesta for educational purposes and to promote the company's nonalcoholic beverages. "Our sponsorship consists of our consumer awareness and education," he says. "We give out literature about our alcohol awareness program and our push to prevent underage drinking."
Although Dahl says she thinks the sentiment behind the Old Town celebration is very nice, she contends that drinking is a major component. "There is a lot of drinking and a lot of drunks," she says. "I've seen a lot of vomiting going on there on Cinco de Mayo. I wouldn't expose my children to it."
But if alcohol companies can't sponsor events, educate the public or push their products, some wonder if the Con Orgullo Coalition hasn't left them any wiggle room. "It's a no-win proposition," says SDSU's Belch. "If they try to do things to recognize the true significance of the holiday, people will see it as exploitive. The ultimate thing would probably be to back down on the real promotion and trying to exploit the holiday."
Local distributors seem to understand that. Castillo says that last year he canceled the appearance of one of Budweiser's main attractions out of respect for the concerns raised by the Con Orgullo Coalition.
"The Clydesdales were going to show up to the event [last year] in Old Town, but because of sensitivity to that we decided just to pull them out," he says, adding that the horses will not be at this year's Fiesta either.
It's a minor achievement for the Con Orgullo Coalition, which soon hopes to see the history of Cinco de Mayo added to the school curriculum in San Diego elementary schools as it was in Los Angeles last year.