May 1, 2018

How Two Mexican Restaurant Owners Avoid Stereotypes On Cinco De Mayo

By Avery Kleinman

The family of Yicela Alvarado runs Taqueria Habanero at 3710 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.

The family of Yicela Alvarado runs Taqueria Habanero at 3710 14th Street NW, Washington, DC.

On May 5, margaritas and mezcal will be flowing across the region as D.C.’s restaurants and bars fill with partiers celebrating Cinco de Mayo. But for many, the celebrations have little do with Mexico or the true significance of the date. Has a holiday meant to celebrate Mexico become something that stereotypes it instead? Two owners of D.C. Mexican restaurants– one Mexican, one not– weigh in.

Yicela Alvarado’s parents own Taqueria Habanero on 14th Street in Washington, D.C. Her family is originally from Puebla, Mexico, the city where the Battle of Puebla took place on May 5, 1862 –the event that Cinco de Mayo celebrates. 

“It’s the day that we sell the most out of the year. I think it’s been highly commercialized especially for Mexican restaurants. It lacks authenticity since most clients are looking for drink or food specials without knowing the meaning of Cinco de Mayo, they may even confuse it as Mexico’s Independence Day.

We love our clients who come by the restaurant on Cinco de Mayo, and we do our part by teaching them about this special day in Mexican history even if it means placing a chalkboard outside as they pass by. Recently, I noticed that “Cinco De Mayo” was added as a holiday on our Apple iPhones, so it would be appropriate for people who celebrate Cinco de Mayo to take at least two minutes out of their day to learn what Cinco de Mayo is if they don’t already know.”


Kelly Phillips and her family run Espita Mezcaleria at 1250 9th Street NW, Washington, DC.

Kelly Phillips is a co-owner and manager of Espita Mezcaleria, a Mexican restaurant in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The restaurant is hosting a Cinco de Mayo event 

“We opened Espita Mezcaleria with the goal of celebrating the people of Mexico and their cuisine. It’s a cuisine that we felt was under-represented in the area, and we wanted to show how Mexican cuisine differs from region to region. There are a lot of stereotypes that come with Mexican food and culture, and our goal has been to take people beyond that. We fell in love with the spirits and food of Southern Mexico, with a focus on the diverse moles and masa history found in Oaxaca. That’s what we showcase in the restaurant, and it’s not easy. We have guests who ask for enchiladas and quesadillas, or what they think Mexican restaurants should offer, and they are surprised when they open our menu and are not familiar with any of the dishes. We try to make conscious buying choices so that we’re supporting the Mexican economy, like our decision to only import heirloom Oaxacan corn and mezcal from sustainable producers who are pairing their workers fair wages.

That said, Cinco de Mayo always feels unavoidable for us. We like to include our team in which events we celebrate and this is always a big one. On one hand, it’s a big economic decision as it’s our highest sales day of the year, so our team is excited because they know they will do well and will have plenty of work. If we don’t celebrate, do people on our team lose money? Yes. Every decision we make, we try to think about the people that work with us and it is our responsibility to make sure that they can provide for their families and have full-time hours if they need them. There’s a lot of marketing around Cinco de Mayo and it can feel very non-authentic, so we always try to do something that feels right for Espita and the team that makes it possible.

So yes, we celebrate Cinco de Mayo at Espita, but we celebrate in ways that are ethical and aware. This year we are highlighting a Oaxacan rum from a small remote village that is over five hours outside of Oaxaca, and a smaller brand of mezcales called Mezcal Vago. There are no frozen margaritas, no mariachi band, no pinatas, nothing like that because it’s just not us.”

The Kojo Nnamdi Show will explore cultural appropriation and holidays on-air on Wednesday, May 2