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Alcohol and Culture Don't Mix, Kids Say

Students in Ventura County protest linking of Cinco de Mayo with drinking in liquor ads.

May 05, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Concerned that alcohol companies are co-opting their culture, student activists in Ventura County are trying to shut the tap on beer and liquor promotions that they say swamp Cinco de Mayo and drown the true spirit of the Mexican holiday.

The campaign -- launched last week by Ventura-based Future Leaders of America -- reaches into the elementary schools, where youngsters have been learning the meaning of Cinco de Mayo followed by a look at the flood of beer and tequila advertising that accompanies the holiday.

Future Leaders wants to curb those promotions, arguing that alcohol companies are using cultural symbols to exploit the holiday and boost sales.

That message appears to be soaking in.

At Rose Avenue Elementary School in Oxnard, dozens of pupils fired off letters to beer distributors and liquor store owners after viewing examples of the ads, including one featuring a pitcher of margaritas perched atop a Mayan pyramid.

"You're making the Mexican culture look like drunken bums," 11-year-old Gabriela Magana wrote.

"Stop it, or else."

The Future Leaders campaign is part of a six-year statewide push by Latino activists to stop alcohol industries from marketing and sponsoring Latino cultural events.

Spearheaded by the Hayward, Calif.-based Latinos and Latinas for Health Justice, the Cinco de Mayo con Orgullo (Fifth of May With Pride) campaign has promoted alcohol-free celebrations from San Diego to San Mateo. More than two dozen such festivals were expected to take place this weekend in California, Arizona and Texas.

Rallying behind the message "Our culture is not for sale," the campaign seeks to reclaim the holiday from alcohol companies and other commercial interests and spreading the word that there is more to Cinco de Mayo than margaritas.

"They are taking our culture, putting an alcohol message into it and sending it back out," said Albert Melena, chairman of the Los Angeles County coalition promoting the alcohol-free events.

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla at which outmanned Mexican troops defeated an invading French army in 1862.

While considered a minor holiday in Mexico, it has evolved into a uniquely American celebration, one popularized by Chicano activists in the 1960s and '70s, who were determined to reassert their cultural identity and display their ancestral pride.

"Our goal is to promote the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo," Melena said. "We are trying to prevent this from turning into another St. Patrick's Day, when people forget about the significance of the holiday and turn it into another day to drink."

Critics say the holiday also has become a favorite of alcohol companies, which have poured big dollars into advertising campaigns that feature cultural icons, ranging from the Mexican flag to Mayan temples.

But industry officials say they see no harm in those campaigns, noting that much effort also has been put into promoting responsible drinking during Cinco de Mayo and other Latino holidays.

"Our advertising is responsible and it's directed to adults," said Lisa Hawkins, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. "We see nothing wrong if an adult wants to celebrate this day with a margarita, as long as it's done responsibly."

That didn't stop Fiesta Broadway organizers from banning alcohol at their annual downtown Los Angeles event.

Billed as the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the world, the event featured a beer garden during its early years. But striving for a family atmosphere, Fiesta Broadway organizers decided to go cold turkey eight years ago, removing alcohol sales from the celebration.

Peter Bellas, the event's vice president of sales and marketing, said the decision had nothing to do with concerns about advertising or exploitation. Rather, organizers wanted to make sure they were conveying the right community message.

"We are a safer, cleaner, smarter event for having done it," Bellas said of the fiesta, which was held for the 14th year two weekends ago and drew an estimated half a million people.

"We lost a few sponsors," he added. "But you know what? We made it up in the long run with clients who believe in our philosophy that Cinco de Mayo -- like St. Patrick's Day -- doesn't have to have an alcohol-drinking component to it."

That was the message last week at Rose Avenue School in Oxnard.

After staging a short skit on the historical events leading up to the Battle of Puebla, Future Leaders of America members presented a slide show featuring samples of the alcohol advertising that surrounds Cinco de Mayo.

There was a beer ad with scantly clad women wrapped in bandoleers juxtaposed against a historic black-and-white photo of Mexican revolutionaries. Another ad traded the "Si Se Puede," slogan made famous by labor leader Cesar Chavez for one pushing tequila with the catch phrase, "Si Se Party, Si Se Cuervo."

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