In the past couple of months, a new billboard has appeared around Austin advertising Indio Beer, a new entrant to the US market. An Aztec warrior emerges from the jungle: "COMING PRONTO." (See above pic from Lamar Boulevard, courtesy of The Marcos Kirsch Experience.) Since I don't really watch television, I have to rely on billboards as one of my principal commercial cultural barometers. Billboards during the bust have become heavily focused on selling capitalism's cheapest and most proletarian anesthetic—beer (along with healthy doses of tequila and spirits with a Caribbean theme, often actually named after a pirate). And you can't help but notice how much of the advertising is devoted to peddling the beers of Mexico.
The core semiotic cues are all the same: beach, sand, surf, beauty, lime, sun, the Pacific, and lots of skin, perhaps with some lucha libre masks thrown in for ironic good measure. Ever notice how our Mexican beer ads rarely feature an actual Mexican? Even when they are self-evidently set in an unspecified Mexican fantasy location? That's because the beaches those dudes are visiting (sometimes with their hot but somewhat stuck-up Greek style girlfriends) are not actually set in Mexico. They are set in a dream world where we escape from the alienating cubicle grind of our lives as servants of 21st century Capital. You will never see a computer in a Mexican beer commercial, unless you count the Blackberry that vacationing investment banker tosses into el Pacifico in the above Corona ad. The idea of "Mexico" in contemporary American culture expresses our yearning for a place we can actually travel to where you don't have to live like *this*—and the beers (and tequilas and Margaritaville rums) provide us an actual means to simulate that escape, by lubricating our inner Benjamin Franklins into Dionysian liberation, in a mode that generates plenty of dinero for the Man.
Every year during the first week of May the media fills with arch features explaining what a ridiculous holiday we celebrate with Cinco de Mayo. The stories typically try to demythologize the idea of the holiday as Mexican Independence Day, explaining that it commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla against French forces of Napoleon III, in the struggle that ultimately resulted in the imposition of Maximilian I as dictator—a regional holiday celebrated in Puebla that has become, the stories always note, an excuse to sell Mexican beer. This Huff Post piece is more helpful, explaining Cinco de Mayo as a Latino-American identity celebration. But that still doesn't explain why the gringos are having so much fun, does it?
There's a Puritan subtext in all those mainstream media stories purporting to debunk the idea of Cinco de Mayo as a "real" holiday. No surprise, when you read a little more, and realize that the infiltration of Mexican beer into American culture really happened during Prohibition, when Californians and Texans would drive over a hot desert border to drink cold beer and recover their right to party. And now we get to drink their beer right here. Cinco de Mayo, gringo style, *is* Mexican Independence Day—specifically, the day on which we celebrate the idea of Mexico as the semiotic cue we use to liberate ourselves from the well-wired dominion of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of Capitalism (si, claro, in a way that also pays sacrifice to that spirit). Squeeze a lime in that, Max Weber!
There's another important subtext lurking in all this, as well, I think. You can see it in Indio's Aztec warrior emerging from the jungles into our frontage roads. You can see it in the very un-American (and subtly threatening) masculinity of Dos Equis's "The Most Interesting Man in the World." And you can see it in the Mexican beer ads targeted at Mexicans living in the US, with their expressions of Mexican nationalism (and even in the *American* beer ads targeting the Latino population—like the BudLight ads with Pitbull). Mexican beers are probably the leading Mexican export to the US that's actually Mexican (as opposed to the electronic and automotive components we pay Mexican labor to produce for us at the other end of the Nafta express—digest this statistical analysis of Mexico-US import-export activity for some mind-blowing revelation). Their successful infiltration of American culture on its own terms represents a powerful articulation of that unspoken dream of reclamation, a vanguard for the demographic reclamation in process.
Maybe, in this symbiosis, there's another dream—one of real cultural integration, and the end of borders.
In the meantime, as you mourn the death of MCA, and examine your inner Prohibitionist that needs to be put in a time out, consider whether the silliest anthem of the 80s didn't have a point: ¡Es verdad que tienes que luchar por tu derecho a enfiestarte!
Feliz Cinco de Mayo—don't be a Jackass: