What You Don’t Know About Cinco de Mayo
Cinco de Mayo is so ingrained in American culture that we often don’t give the holiday a second thought beyond ordering a heaping bowl of chips and salsa (with extra guacamole on the side, please), and a frosty glass of margaritas on the rocks. But in fact, Cinco de Mayo is so much more.
Cambridge, MA is home to several Mexican restaurant institutions -- Ole and Olecito, Border Cafe, Felipe’s as well as newly opened Naco Taco and Lone Star -- all of which serve some of the most authentic Mexican food and drinks in the Boston-Cambridge area. Cinco de Mayo’s colorful celebration helps kick off the month of May, and is celebrated by the masses -- but how much do you really know about America’s favorite fiesta?
I posed this question to Ole’s head chef, Erwin Ramos to find out what Cinco de Mayo actually stands for, and why Americans embrace it so enthusiastically. Ole, and their grab-and-go sister restaurant Olecito are landmarks in Inman Square’s eclectic neighborhood of shops and eateries, and have established themselves as a go-to for authentically made Mexican food. So, it only made sense to chat with Erwin about Cinco de Mayo.
Meet the chef behind Ole’s success
Fun fact about Ole’s Co-Owner and Executive Chef Erwin Ramos: he is originally from the Philippines, a culinary culture that shares Mexico's love for wholesome base ingredients and eclectic spices. Although it may seem odd to discuss Mexican cultures and traditions with someone who is not a natural born citizen, Chef Erwin has an uncanny view for Mexican food and traditions.
Erwin sees the Mexican culture through such a loving lens, with adoration for the minute details of the culture that you can’t help but see the warmth and color of Mexico when you speak to him about it, and even more so when you taste his food. Erwin has visited Mexico often, and has fully immersed himself in the culture. He specifically draws an immense amount of inspiration from the vibrant spirit, smells, colors and sounds of Oaxaca, Mexico -- a city he describes as ‘a magical place in the middle of Mexico that has been largely untouched by the outside.’
For those of you who haven’t yet had the privilege of making the acquaintance of Chef Ramos, or would like to learn a bit more about him this post is a good start.
Cinco de Mayo is not a Mexican Holiday
This was the first fact Chef Erwin told me about Cinco de Mayo. Surprising isn’t it?
Many Americans mistake Cinco de Mayo as ‘Mexico’s Independence Day,’ much like our own (don’t feel guilty, I always thought it was Mexico’s Fourth of July too!). But it's actually just a day that celebrates the Mexican victory over the French after one battle -- the Battle of Puebla to be exact.
Throughout most of Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is just another day
Today in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is mostly celebrated in the city of Puebla with parades and recreations of the battle. The day isn’t even a national holiday, “It’s a day of remembrance in Mexico,” says Chef Erwin, “It’s not a day of crazy celebration.”
But in America, everyone takes Cinco de Mayo very seriously
We know, we know, it's a little misleading the way we celebrate Cinco de Mayo, but we’ve always embraced a good holiday. And who can blame us? Especially when the Mexican culture has such great food, traditions, and music.
What is every American's favorite (foodie) element of Cinco de Mayo? Avocados and tequila, of course. According to the Boston Globe, Americans eat more than 87 million (yes, million) pounds of avocados every time Cinco de Mayo rolls around. Tequila may have originated in Mexico, but Americans drink twice as much of the spirit. 4 out of 10 beverages ordered on Cinco de Mayo are, not unsurprisingly, margaritas. ¡Salud!
Cinco de Mayo is one of many Cultural Celebrations in Cambridge
Cinco de Mayo is a chance for Cambridge to experience another cultural event. We celebrate our diversity with festivals year-round like Bastille Day, the Cambridge Carnival International which celebrates both African and Caribbean traditions, and the VivaLatino Festival, just to mention a few.
“It’s so diverse,” said Erwin when I asked him to comment on the subject. He stretched his arms wide, as though he hoped to encompass and embrace all that wonderful diversity in Cambridge. “There are many culturally-focused celebrations. Although our version of Cinco de Mayo is vastly celebrated with Mexican beer, tequila and margaritas, the Mexican tradition of the holiday is more about gatherings. They’re about family.”
Celebrate Cinco de Mayo as a family -- with a neighborhood block party, and pig roast included:
Erwin’s first Cinco de Mayo fiesta at Ole was celebrated with just a few family and friends: “We just got together in the parking lot. There were mariachi -- it was not as trendy and not so expensive then -- and we had a great time. People started inviting more people and, well, here we are today!”
Today, Olecito’s Cinco de Mayo Party is one of their most anticipated days of the year. “There will be a ‘block party’ at Olecito this year- all day festivities,” enthused Erwin, his eyes lighting up as soon as I asked about the restaurants’ plans, “a taco cart, a beer garden, mariachi, a big raffle….Oh, and we’re roasting a pig!”. Seriously, I asked? “Yes, seriously.” Erwin gave me a stern look as if to say, “We don’t joke about these things.”
The once small neighborhood block party has grown into a true extravaganza, where all who attend whether they are visitors or locals, quickly become part of Cambridge’s family and Ole’s!
What does Erwin think of all this? “It’s fantastic, of course,” he says, “but in the end, it’s still a family gathering, just like a true traditional Mexican gathering, the family has just grown!”
So, where should I be for Cinco de Mayo?
Come join the family (and the fun!) on Thursday, May 5th from 1pm to 9pm at Olecito. If you’re looking for a more refined (and quieter) dinner, head over to Ole during their regular dinner hours, where you’ll be treated to special menu items and a visit from the mariachi. Whichever experience you choose, it’s sure to be quite the fiesta.
See you there! I’ll be by the pig.
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Alison grew up in sunny San Diego and attended the University of Southern California in equally sunny Los Angeles. She relocated to the Boston area last August, where she learned the unique joys of humidity, snow shoveling, and wind chill. She also, however, has experienced the joys of jumping in piles of leaves in the fall, making snow angels, and exploring all the amazing things Boston and Cambridge have to offer.
Alison’s job as a marketing coordinator for Olé Restaurant Group means that she gets to spend a huge amount of time behind the scenes at Olé, and she couldn’t be happier that delicious Mexican cuisine is a part of her job. When she’s not working, you can find Alison doing yoga near her home in the North End, running along the Charles, and trying to learn the lyrics to Sweet Caroline so she fits in at Red Sox games.More by Alison Hom