Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cinco de Mayo, Beyond the Margarita

The blogosphere was awash with Cinco de Mayo recipe posts this year, it seemed, even on BlogHer.  And I was going to ignore it, but it ticked me off more than usual this year.  (Here's where you say, "well, just don't read them."  But I think we can't just step away from this.  Let me explain.)

Cinco de Mayo has become an excuse to drink (one of the featured BlogHer recipe posts actually said "start with alcohol!"); to ignore some pretty terrible treatment of a large immigrant population; and to reduce the complexity of Mexican and Mexican-American culture to stereotypes, even in our schools.  Most people seem not to know why it's even important.

Cinco de Mayo is a commemoration of the Battle of Puebla, fought in 1862, in which a woefully underequipped Mexican army successfully repelled the forces of Napoleon III.  Though they eventually lost the war, that battle was important because it marked a rare moment in history: a colonized people's resistance of a colonizing force.  It wasn't even really celebrated much until the Chicano movement reclaimed the holiday in the 1960s, celebrating their own heritage and resistance to the colonizing forces of American culture.

Which is sort of ironic, considering how the holiday itself has been colonized by people trying to make a buck, or people who have no particular connection to the culture.

Our nation has come a long way on the backs of Mexican laborers.  In my town, there are still men (some Mexican, and now also some from Central American countries like Honduras) who hang out at the convenience store, waiting to be picked up by someone who wants cheap help for a day job, so that they can support their families.  There are also, as there were when I lived in LA, lots of immigrant laborers who work on farms in my county, and not always (or even often) for the best wages, or benefits.

I'm grateful that I live in this small diverse corner of the universe.  But I also see a lot of work to be done.  A few nights ago, for example, a SWAT team came to my town to conduct a drug raid.  Three blocks from my house.  Social media went crazy.  And blamed the "Mexican gangs" and "immigrant laborers."

If we reduce Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to moustached drunkards, then it's going to be a lot easier to incarcerate them, underpay them, or treat them as less than human.

I have no objection to celebrating Cinco de Mayo.  My daughter's school held a celebration in the evening, which was the result of a month-long culture and arts unit with the Spanish teacher.  Some of the elementary school students read the history of the holiday, and mentioned that it's celebrated here more than in Mexico.  They sang "De Colores," a song associated with Mexican folklore which has been used as the unofficial anthem of the Farm Worker Movement.  They made sarapes, shawl-like garments worn in Mexico by men, and rebozos, long flat garments worn by women, often folded or wrapped around the head and/or upper body to shade from the sun, provide warmth or to carry babies and large bundles.  (The garment is considered to be part of Mexican identity and nearly all Mexican women own at least one.)  They learned about the Mexican flag, made crafts of pyramids and el ojo de Dios.  Yes, they ate beans and tortillas, because that was the most expedient way to feed a huge crowd of 2-6 year olds and their families.  But that wasn't the focus of the event.

Next year, I hope that there are some more nuanced posts about Cinco de Mayo.  Maybe some that honor the real meaning of the holiday, and the role of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans and their culture in our own nation's history, rather than exhorting us to "start with booze."

Did you celebrate Cinco de Mayo yesterday?
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  1. This is a wonderful post about looking beyond the commercialization of a holiday and exploring the origins. I'm glad to hear you and your family had an opportunity do this exploration.

  2. Thank you for this. No, I didn't celebrate Cinco de Mayo nor did I celebrate St. Patrick's Day, just as I am assuming (and sort of hoping) that others are not celebrating Lag B'Omer today, unless they understand the significance and are doing so because they understand the importance of the day and not because they want to use it as an excuse to drink.


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