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Commercialism in America: Appropriation VS Appreciation

Updated: Oct 26


This past May, I tweeted about Cinco de Mayo, saying I was celebrating by cooking quesadillas for my family and having some Dos Equis and margaritas. Every year since I turned 21, I used Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to let loose a bit and drink while enjoying some Mexican-American food.


But this year was different; I wanted to commemorate the Mexican victory at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. I was going to raise a margarita to those who fought the French and remember their bravery and sacrifice.


Shortly after I posted the tweet, a person responded and asked, “You know that Cinco de Mayo isn’t a Mexican holiday, right? It’s a bit of American cultural appropriation. The day of Mexican freedom is actually September 16.”


I knew about the Mexican independence day, but I had no idea it was culturally appropriated. I felt ashamed and disgusted with myself and wondered if there were people out there that didn’t know about the commercialized and appropriated holiday. I couldn’t be the only one, right?


Before I knew it, I had created and participated in a thread discussion about cultural appropriation and commercialism, asking the Twitter community about their thoughts on appropriated holidays like Cinco de Mayo. I wanted to encourage this discussion because I believed there was something that had to be said for all of this nonsense.


Several people on Twitter interacted, mostly giving their opinions on what appropriation is and the difference between it and appreciation. As I read through the responses, I realized that many people understood the difference between appreciation and appropriation, but a good amount have no clue what the celebration of Cinco de Mayo is and why it exists.


America has always been known as “The Melting Pot” because of the diverse cultures and communities that make up the history and fabric of this country. For centuries, this unique mix of multicultural backgrounds has enriched our society and culture, and those who embrace these differences do so by celebrating holidays and adopting traditions.


Over time, these cultures, communities, holidays, and even religions have been misinterpreted by the general public and marketed by manufacturers to make profits rather than celebrated for its historical meaning and cultural significance. An example of this is Christmas songs actually being written by Jews.


According to Newsweek, Jewish singers/songwriters wrote some of the most famous, well-known Christmas songs in American history. It is assumed that these Jewish singers/songwriters jumped on the “commercialized Christmas” bandwagon when they realized they would turn a good profit off of Yuletide carols rather than Chanukah songs, Christmas being the more widely celebrated holiday in December.


What Is Commercialism?


When researching the definition of commercialism, a few results appeared. For the purpose of this article, I define commercialism as:


“the act of selling goods and focusing on profit and quantity of sales rather than quality of the product or doing good.”


Religious holidays and cultural holidays are all seen as money makers to manufacturers. Restaurants giving meal deals and discounts. Retailers having sales. Liquor and food companies advertising products. All in the name of making money; instead of promoting cultural and religious celebration through embracing traditions and understanding the holiday’s historical meaning, products are promoted to increase consumerism.


Appropriation versus Appreciation


When embracing a culture that is not one’s own, it seems to be common, either by mistake or on purpose, that a cultural aspect is appropriated rather than appreciated.


Appropriation occurs in the instance where a person takes an aspect of another culture (i.e., fashion) and misuses it without understanding its significance to a culture. For instance, back in 2015, Kristen Stewart faced scrutiny in South Korea after sporting a t-shirt with what looked to be the Japanese imperial symbol underneath a larger shirt.


(The photo was taken at the LAX airport as Stewart was preparing for a flight to Incheon, South Korea.)


The symbol, the rising sun, resembled the Japanese imperialist flag from when Japan occupied Korea for several decades in the early 1900s. With the sensitive history between Korea and Japan, it is understandable why many Koreans found the actress’s actions ignorant and the shirt distasteful.


Appropriation is also when a person makes an aspect of a culture their own without crediting its original creator or acknowledging the culture from which it came. A good example of this type of appropriation is when Kim Kardashian sported Fulani braids; she referred to them as “Bo Derek braids,” accrediting the actress from the 1979 movie 10 rather than the African culture from which the hairstyle originated.


Kardashian received backlash for this stunt with one Twitter user writing, “Do your research for once before engaging in the culture. But anything for publicity right?”

In a more derogatory sense, appropriation is when a person misuses an aspect of a culture to disrespect or mock said-aspect and culture. For example, when someone sports a sombrero and a mustache on Cinco de Mayo or a “leprechaun” get-up on St. Patrick’s Day, it is inherently mocking the culture from which these holidays originated.


These celebrations, originally created to take pride in one’s culture and history, are now used by many as an excuse to drink their favorite liquors and eat Americanized versions of said-cultures food, as well as a way for manufacturers to commercialize these holidays. When people adopt these aspects but do not gain respect or appreciation for the culture and the community from which it was adopted, it is appropriation.


On the other hand, appreciation occurs when a person embraces an aspect of a culture, learns the significance and history of said-aspect and culture, and how it is used or celebrated properly. If a non-Asian person decides to go to Chinatown to celebrate the Lunar New Year and go with the intention of celebrating the holiday, taking part in the traditions, and acknowledging the origin and history of the celebration, they are appreciating Asian culture and community.


In short, cultural appreciation is the sincere understanding of a culture and having a social and emotional connection to the culture without claiming it as your own.


Commercialism and Appropriation of Cinco de Mayo


For years, Americans have celebrated appropriated holidays with many not realizing that they are appropriating those cultures and communities. Thanks to the manufacturers and their advertisements, they have commercialized the holidays and the culture, turning a profit and increasing their liquor and food sales.


These holidays, like Cinco de Mayo, have historical meaning and cultural significance, but their importance seems to be buried by all of the companies who throw money into advertisements, encouraging people to buy their products for their block parties and bar hops.


Many Americans believe Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of Mexico’s independence day, like the Fourth of July, but they are mistaken. Mexico’s independence day actually took place on September 16, 1810. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s victory against the French empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862.


Mexican-Americans living in California at the time considered Cinco de Mayo worthy of celebration because it meant that the French wouldn’t have the opportunity to aid the Confederate Army. Historians believe that if Mexico was defeated by the French in Puebla, it would’ve changed the course of history in reference to the American Civil War. If France won the battle, they would have completely changed the outcome. (Insider)


In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo isn’t that big of a deal. The holiday is observed in Puebla, but it’s more of an American holiday. In the 1960s, Chicano activists acknowledged Cinco de Mayo as a way to celebrate and honor their Mexican heritage. But in the 70s and 80s, manufacturers (mostly in the hospitality and spirits industry) capitalized on the holiday, seeing it as an opportunity to increase their food and liquor sales. (Insider)


According to “How to Capture the $1.5 Trillion Spending Power of Cinco de Mayo” by Inc.com (2016), big liquor companies, like Corona and Modelo, were generating sales by upping their marketing around Cinco de Mayo. In a 2019 Loop Insight study, consumers drank more beer while observing this holiday than the Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, and Super Bowl weekend, spending an average of $745 million on light beers and malt liquors alone.


The study also showed that about 44% of tequila related cocktail beverages were consumed on Cinco de Mayo (the average being about 14.5%). Consumers drank roughly 126 million liters of tequila on Cinco de Mayo alone. That is a lot of liquor.

Even without Cinco de Mayo, North America alone accounts for almost 83% of all tequila exports annually. With over 2,000 brands available, it’s not hard to recognize the impact tequila has on North America—with an annual growth for tequila of about 4.5% a year. (Loop Insight)


Food companies, like Avocados from Mexico, and chain restaurants, including Bahama Breeze, Chili’s, On the Border, and T.G.I.Friday’s, also increased advertising and offered discount deals to attract more customers. (Inc.com) No wonder there is so much of a buzz at the liquor stores, grocery stores, and restaurants and bars on Cinco de Mayo.


With all of the great deals, discounts, and advertising, it is not a shock as to why we’ve become so blind to the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo to Mexican-Americans. Our mindsets and “goals” around this holiday are to stuff our faces with inauthentic foods and get drunk from consuming enormous amounts of our favorite liquors and beers; commercialism and appropriation over appreciation and celebration of culture and community.


Unless we can break these habits and move away from our consumerism of products and good deals and reduce or cease capitalizing off of cultures, communities, and holidays, we will continue to appropriate the Mexican culture and many other communities. If we can stop obsessing over tacos and tequila, corned beef and Irish stout, and spending money on silly decorations and costumes, we can end the appropriation of these communities and start appreciating them for who they are, what they contribute to this country, and why their culture is important to us all.


Practicing mindfulness and bringing awareness to these issues is just the beginning. I hope we can find the balance and learn to appreciate and celebrate these holidays without degrading or insulting them.






~~~






Georgia I. Salvaryn is a graduate student at Rowan University, pursuing a master's in writing. She earned her bachelor's degree from Montclair State University in Journalism, with a minor in Chinese studies. Georgia is a writer and content manager for ink. From full-of-facts investigative journalism pieces to fluffy and fun feature pieces, her writing range reaches across multiple genres. In her spare time, Georgia dabbles in photography, enjoys drawing pen-and-ink art, and attempts to complete New York Times crossword puzzles. You can browse her articles and photos on her website atgeorgiaisalvaryn.com.


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