Cinco de Mayo: Has its popularity peaked?

Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexico's victory over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. But its popularity may be peaking this year because the flow of Mexicans into the US is falling.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Beth Romero (left) and Carla Zamudio of the Maru Montero Dance Company wait offstage before performing at the Sylvan Theater near the Washington Monument during the 18th Annual National Cinco de Mayo Festival in Washington Sunday. Fewer Mexicans are migrating to the US, which could mean that the popularity of Cinco de Mayo has hit its peak.

Cinco de Mayo may have reached the peak of its popularity in the United States.

That’s not because Mexicans don’t celebrate their country’s victory over the French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 (the holiday is mostly celebrated north of the border).

It’s because there are fewer Mexicans coming into the US – and a steady stream are returning back to Mexico.

IN PICTURES: Cinco de Mayo

The flow of immigrants from Mexico to the US has sharply dropped since the mid 2000s, according to Pew Hispanic Center. If that trend continues, there may be more Mexicans leaving the US than entering it at some point, though that’s a distant possibility.

“There’s been a huge drop between migration from Mexico to the US,” says Jeff Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. “The available data suggest that there has been essentially no growth in the Mexican population in the United States over the last couple of years. This suggests a rough balance between new immigration and return migration.”

If you attend a Cinco de Mayo celebration, look around. Are there more Mexicans or not.

Out-migration from Mexico (almost all of it to the US) has dropped steadily over the past several years, according to Pew. From February 2006-February 2007, it was about 1 million. By 2008/09, it had fallen to 636,000.

“Immigration is diminished,” says Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor at Columbia University and an immigration expert. “It’s harder to get a job in the US [after the recession], and there’s an increased risk of being caught.”

That finding is reinforced by data from the US Border Patrol, showing fewer apprehensions of Mexicans attempting to cross illegally. In fact, apprehensions decreased by a third between 2006 and 2008, data show.

Meanwhile, many Mexicans are returning to Mexico, though that figure is steady, not increasing, says Mr. Passel of Pew. “Return migration to Mexico has not increased and has remained virtually constant over the last three to four years.”

Some 479,000 Mexican migrants returned home from February 2006 to February 2007, according to Mexico's National Survey of Employment and Occupation. In 2008-2009, that figure was 433,000.

Add to that Mexicans’ dropping birth rates – the average Mexican family had seven children in 1960, compared with two in 2008 – and the tide of immigration could change.

Still, Mexican culture is as much a part of the American mosaic as ever, says Professor de la Garza.

“There’s so many ways its transformed American culture,” he says. “First of all, from a culinary perspective, they’ve altered the way Americans eat not unlike pizza did, or Chinese. [Mexican food] is now an American meal.”

“And of course, linguistically, there’s a penetration. They’re expanding the patois of the American public.”

This Cinco de Mayo, crunch on some tortilla chips and salsa and chew on these figures:

13,000: Number of Mexican-born people in the US in 1850.

12.6 million: Number of Mexican-born people in the US in 2010.

30.7 million: Number of US residents of Mexican origin in 2008.

2 out of 3: Hispanics are of Mexican origin

15,112: Number of full-service Mexican restaurants in the US in 2002

$12.6 billion: Sales of top Mexican restaurant chains in 2009

IN PICTURES: Cinco de Mayo

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