This year thousands upon thousands will pour into Mexican restaurants and consume their favorite Mexican foods and beverages, no matter how un authentic they might be, to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in all its americanized white washed glory. In fact if you ask most Americans who celebrate the holiday they might tell you they really don’t know what they’re celebrating. These ill-thought actions lead to a normalized sense of cultural appropriation and flat out racism in America, making a mockery of not only the Mexican holiday but the Mexican-American community.
To better understand Cinco de Mayo you have to understand its rich history and significance in Mexican history. And no it is not the celebration of Mexican Independence, which is celebrated on September 16 and was won over 50 years before the start of Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo’s story started as a celebration of the Mexican Army’s unexpected victory in 1862 in the Battle of Puebla during the France-Mexican War.
Mexico in 1861 was a fairly newly founded country that was in financial ruin, so much so that that year they had to default their debt to European countries, making an enemy out of France and Napoleon III in the process. Napoleon ordered French forces to storm the city of Veracruz and overthrow the Mexican government. In resistance a rag tag group of Mexican soldiers set up a line of defense in the town of Puebla. The Mexican troops led an assault on May 5, 1862, crushing all odds by forcing the french army to surrender in a crushing defeat for the french and a marvelous victory for the new republic of Mexico.
The defying victory solidified the pride and devotion to Mexican heritage, which in turn the Mexican people deemed as a turning point and the events on Cinco de Mayo a holiday. The immense pride and sense of accomplishment that came from overcoming such an egregious colonizer led to the start of Mexican patriotism and the well respected country that we see them as today.
However, the Mexican and Mexican American people are under a new colonizer, not one led with a war chest of weapons but a war chests of ignorance and an out of touch lack of understanding. Cinco de Mayo is about celebrating Mexican heritage, not an excuse to guzzle cheap $5 margaritas and tacos at your local Mexican restaurant. Americans have drastically missed the mark on the holiday by aligning an otherwise commemorative holiday with beer and margarita promotions. They often display the stereotypes Americans have made for Mexicans such as ponchos and handlebar mustaches, which are yes, racist.
Part of me is happy to see an ignored community finally receive the attention they deserve. The other side of me is rolling my eyes at the sight of non-Mexicans wearing sombreros, shaking maracas and referring to a historical event as “Cinco de Drinko”. Which yes is racist and is not only a form of cultural appropriation but also forms of americas micro-aggressions to the Mexican and Mexican-American community.
This normalized ignorance, insensitivity and just an utter ignorance is not ok.
The fact that most Americans don’t know what Cinco de Mayo is makes it easy for some people to say and do things that are culturally insensitive. To put it simply you wouldn’t celebrate Juneteenth or African-American history month by eating collard greens and wearing black face or celebrating lunar new year and eating cheap Chinese takeout while wearing a kimono, so why appropriate Mexican heritage and culture the same way.
If you’ve celebrated this way in the past, don’t sweat it. Take this as an opportunity to learn more about the history of the holiday and plan a more appropriate celebration this year. Ideas for alternate ways of the celebration could be:
- Supporting Mexican owned local and small businesses
- Not resorting to tacky Mexican or Mexican knock off cuisine during the holiday
- Learn more about Mexican heritage and culture
- Educate yourself on how you can be more of an advocate for the Mexican American community and learn possible micro-aggressions on topics of racism
- Wonder why you are celebrating the holiday and if there is no true meaning, possibly sit this holiday out
Lastly, people who celebrate Cinco de Mayo without understanding its history and main focus aren’t necessarily bad people but perpetrate a cycle of unawareness. Mexican American culture as well as brown and non-Anglo cultures have been appropriated and wrongfully neglected in America since its founding. So its not new and not their fault. Although, when society forgets the difference between appreciation and appropriation of cultures and fails to learn from it, thats when the problem grows and cycle continues to where we are today
We often ignore the impact of Mexican culture after our modern unintentional desensitized nationalist views but seeing the underlying racial biases in our country, peers, and even ourselves we can further our ability to respect and understand one another. Let’s remember that part of our American identity stems from the people who created this food, music, history that we consume on this day and that the people who form our collective Mexican community should be celebrated.
Through proper representation without exploitation, Americans must put down their party city ponchos and 3 for $5 soft tacos and take a moment to appreciate the beauty of Mexican culture and its contributions.