I came to the United States 12 years ago after living in Mexico my whole life. Also, 12 years ago was the first time I celebrated Cinco de Mayo.
I was so confused when I discovered how celebrated this holiday is here. In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is one of those things you learn about in your history class, and then never really talk about it again. Here? It is a highly-marketed holiday with tequila, sombreros, and stick-on mustaches.
Cinco de Mayo Is Not What You Think.
That first year I experienced Cinco de Mayo here in the United States, I spent 30 minutes trying to convince a few co-workers that they were not actually celebrating Mexico’s Independence Day. One of them said, “Well, it doesn’t really matter, as long as I get to eat tacos and drink tequila.”
The truth is that it does matter.
It matters because while Mexico’s Independence Day is on September 16, we commemorate Cinco de Mayo as an important victory in our history. We celebrate La Batalla de Puebla, in which the Mexican army defeated the French troops led by Napoleon III. Napoleon planned to invade and take over Mexico and establish a French monarchy there. However, the outnumbered and poorly-armed Mexican soldiers were victorious against the potent French forces.
Today, this is a holiday that is primarily celebrated in Puebla. Nevertheless, it is a symbol of strength and pride for the whole country. Mexico was the underdog, and we conquered. So yes, it matters.
To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate? That Is the Question.
There was a time when I would feel uneasy every time I would hear about the Cinco de Mayo celebrations. I felt worse if it was coming from people that showed no interest in the Mexican culture during the other 364 days of the year. However, I’ve come to accept it, and sometimes, I’ve even participated in the celebration. I’ll take any excuse to celebrate my heritage and my people with pride.
According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, cultural appropriation is the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without understanding or respecting this culture.
Is it wrong to celebrate Cinco de Mayo while having a margarita and some tacos? Absolutely not! Is it wrong to do it while wearing a big sombrero and stick-on mustache? Probably.
The Mexican culture is rich and beautiful. There is so much more to Mexico than just tequila and tacos. We love celebrating, and we love having a fiesta for every reason and no reason at all, and we want you to join us. Let us tell you about our ancestors and our history. We can’t wait to talk to you about life in Mexico, the real life, not the stereotyped and skewed version we usually see in the media.
How to Avoid Cultural Appropriation and Still Have a Fiesta
If you are celebrating Cinco de Mayo, I encourage you to learn more about our culture and traditions. I encourage you to not only celebrate the tequila and the tacos, but also the people. The people are our culture. Everything else is just delicious and colorful additions to what makes us who we are.
This year, I encourage you to skip the sombrero, mustache, and Chipotle, and look past our accents to get to know us. I assure you it is not just about tequila, tacos, and mariachi. It is about us fighting even when all the odds are against us. Not only fighting, but beating those same odds. It is about your Mexican co-worker, student, employee, boss, or teacher that is always underestimated but continues to defy the story society has carved for us in this country.
Originally published May 2021.
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