Today all around the country people from all walks of life will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Although often mistakenly thought to be Mexico's Independence Day (which is September 16th), the date actually commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over Napoleon III's invading French forces at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Given that the French regrouped and would later go on to defeat the Mexican army and install Maximilian of Austria as a puppet emperor of Mexico, the date is really not celebrated in Mexico outside of the city of Puebla where there are parades, festivals, and even reenactments of the battle.
In the United States, the day is actually more popular than in the country it came from, and over time it has grown into another one of the numerous American holidays which honor the many cultural heritages that make up our nation such as St. Patrick's Day, Oktoberfest, or the Chinese and Hmong New Year celebrations. In the case of Cinco de Mayo, it is a day to partake in the trappings of Mexican culture as a whole—its music, dance, and of course its food and drink.
Cinco de Mayo in Minnesota
In my home state of Minnesota, the Cinco de Mayo parade and festival is held in a district of the city Saint Paul known as “The West Side” and is one of the largest in the country. The West Side is home to the state's oldest Mexican-American community, and it is where my mother's family lived for awhile in her youth. At that time my grandmother was a Guadalupana, a group of women who were active both at the local Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic church and the community as a whole. And although my family never lived on the West Side, we visited there often since we had family who did and, for a while at least, we went to church at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Later when my parents divorced, and I moved to the “burbs” after my mother remarried, we would still visit our family there as well as attend the annual Cinco de Mayo festivities. I even worked at it one year when my father went into business for himself selling Mexican crafts.
The operative word above is “visited” because despite having family there, I was always aware of a pervasive, albeit good natured, prejudice towards me because even though I was “Mexican”, I was not a West Sider. Thus whenever I visited the West Side the locals would make fun of my bolillo (white person) accented Spanish, some of my cousins' friends thought of me as a pushover because I didn't act tough like a cholo, and I was generally thought of as a nobody since I didn't know any of the right people in the neighborhood. Nowhere was this cultural disparity more evident than in the way I viewed Cinco de Mayo.
To the people of the West Side, Cinco de Mayo was not just a celebration of the trappings of Mexican culture; it was a celebration of their particular heritage and historical roots in relation to that culture. In other words, there were and are people who live on the West Side who came from Mexico, and thus when they celebrate Cinco de Mayo they are celebrating very specific but actual aspects of Mexican culture. Granted it seemed to me that their particular take on Mexican culture was rather nostalgic at times and certainly selective, but nonetheless they still saw themselves as trying to preserve their traditions and cultural identity in a world they saw as hostile to it. Historically speaking, this perception was not without reason.
However, living as I did in a kind of Mexican diaspora, it was no surprise that I ended up viewing Cinco de Mayo in a different light. What I saw as I watched all the military veterans, beauty pageant winners, high school marching bands, and other local businesses who participated in the parade, as well as with all the other artists and performers, was a prime example of how Cinco de Mayo had become a true American holiday. I saw how despite all of the prejudice and discrimination the Mexican-American community had endured, they nevertheless persisted in their own “pursuit of happiness” and eventually found their place in American society.
Mexican Pride Versus American Pride
In fact this is one aspect of America that I think is so, dare I say, exceptional. That while it is a lamentable and historical fact that every ethnic or racial group that has ever migrated to the United States, has had to overcome nativist prejudices, America still manages to live up to the motto E Pluribus Unum. Our nation has taken in a diversity of cultures from around the world, but in time it has acculturated them into her own distinct culture. And make no mistake, there is a unique American culture. One that, as David Hacket Fischer described in his 1989 book Albion's Seed: Four British Pathways in America, “for two centuries has remained stubbornly democratic in its politics, capitalist its economy, libertarian in its laws and individualistic in its society and pluralistic in its culture."
It is this culture that I was born into and which has shaped the way I view my Mexican roots. Thus I have a hard time understanding what is meant when I or others, as a person of Mexican descent, is accused of turning my back on my culture or mi raza. If they are referring to Mexican culture—i.e. the ideas and values of someone who lives in or comes from Mexico—then I cannot disown what I never had.
Moreover, let's look at some of the more distinct aspects of Mexican culture that as an American, I could do without. Such as the fact that it remains mired in a rigidly stratified class system that is a relic of the Old World. It is also a culture that engenders and perpetuates a corrupt and dysfunctional oligarchy run by politicians who care so little about their own citizens that they can actually praise those fleeing the country to pursue “a better life” and their “dreams and hopes,” completely oblivious to what that says about the way they run the country. Moreover, as a practicing Catholic, when I look at the level of power and barbarity wielded by the drug cartels combined with the rise of the cult of Santa Muerte (which has even spread to the United States), I see a culture that has in many ways regressed to the time of the Aztecs and is embracing an anti-Mary figure who is the polar opposite of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
If however, my accusers are talking about the various parts of Mexican culture that have been grafted onto the American cultural tree and have over time born fruit in the form of an Americanized Mexican culture, then I would say no, I have not turned my back on it. Rather, I am able to honor and embrace my Mexican heritage to the fullest because it is grounded in the aspects of American culture mentioned above, as well as Judeo-Christian and Natural Law tradition. This gives me the freedom to transcend the less desirable aspects of Mexican culture, while living out and handing on the more wholesome ones such as my Catholic faith and a love of strong family bonds.
So when it comes to choosing between Mexican and American culture (including the Americanized Mexican one), I will choose the one into which I was born but eventually freely accepted as my own. And in this regard, I am reminded of Ben Franklin's words when he was asked what the Continental Convention had produced, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” However, in our more ideologically jaded times, I would rephrase it to say, “An American culture, if you will have it.”
Thus on this Cinco de Mayo I would encourage all those of Mexican descent to certainly celebrate and be proud of their Mexican heritage, but also to seriously reconsider idealizing the culture you or your ancestors left behind and why. Try to see the freedoms that American culture affords to all those who will “have it” and make it your own. At the very least, please stop waving the Mexican flag. Aside from it being incongruous with your presence here in the U.S., but there's just something that seems more than a little contemptible when Mexico's ruling elite can keep avoiding dealing with the country's deep-seated problems by not only encouraging its own citizens to go somewhere else for help, but to get them to proudly wave the Mexican flag as the door hits them on the way out.
Photo: Edyta Blaszczyk/Odessa American