Cinco de Mayo sans cultural appropriation
El Cinco de Mayo is a holiday celebrated on May 5. It celebrates a victory Mexican troops had against French troops in Puebla, Mexico in 1862. According to the account passed down in Mexican history, this feat is a source of celebration because Mexicans where outnumbered in this battle and had the bleak possibility of losing—yet they won.
Today, El Cinco de Mayo is popular in the U.S. and is celebrated many ways. Some people get together and have a few shots of tequila in the name of Mexico, while others take advantage of the many Cinco de Mayo sales and others still attend festivals and watch folklorico dance performances.
There are many ways of celebrating the holiday, including ones that people of Mexican descent find themselves disproving of. There is discussion among the Mexican-American community on the UA campus about El Cinco de Mayo and what implications the celebration brings to the community.
Belén Grijalva, a sophomore studying Mexican American Studies and Spanish with a concentration in Literature, said that Cinco de Mayo has often been portrayed incorrectly.
Despite being of Mexican descent, Grijalva herself doesn’t celebrate the holiday and said she doesn’t understand why people who are not of Mexican descent feel the need to celebrate it.
“First of all, I think that it’s really cultural appropriation, because me being Mexican, I don’t celebrate it because I’m not from Puebla and like why should I celebrate?” she said.
She also disapproved of the way her peers portray Mexicans when celebrating it, saying it can be harmful and misrepresents the people.
“I can tell you that not all Mexicans dress like that,” she said. “They have this misconception about how Mexicans dress and how Mexicans act and how Mexicans are all partying and all that good stuff, however you want to put it, but it’s not only that. Mexicans are really hard workers, and they just take our culture just to make fun of it or to celebrate something that is not even theirs.”
Maurice Magaña is an associate professor in the Mexican American studies department at the UA. His research revolves around social movements and activism.
He said he sees cultural appropriation as, “when you take an aspect or aspects of a culture other than your own on and you take it out of context and you wear it as sort of like a costume.”
Magaña said when he came to Arizona from San Diego, what he saw left an impression.
“The one thing that really surprised me was that students were putting on their Mexican costumes,” he said. “They’re both non-Mexican students, as well as Mexican-American students, putting on their sombreros and serapes and doing that little show, and it really surprised me to see that.”
Magaña said that putting on a costume to represent a culture and feeding into a stereotype of what a Mexican looks like is when it becomes problematic.
“It’s possible to appreciate other people’s cultures and not think that that community that you don’t belong to is a single sort of form of entity and that everybody in that dresses the same way, looks that same way, speaks the same way, acts the same way,” he said.
Some in the community feel that there are ways to celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Mexican culture without stereotyping it.
Michelle Téllez, an assistant professor in the Mexican American studies program who has done work about chicano/a studies, gender, migration and movement, said being conscious of what you’re doing is a good way to start.
“Ask yourself: why do you celebrate it? Like who is it important to and for,” she said. “I’m all for celebrating life and making music and dancing and celebrating each other and the relationships that we have, but if it’s attached to an idea that doesn’t represent a particular people that it’s alleging to represent, then what does that do?”
She added that educating people who are willing to learn can improve the situation.
“It’s a matter of informing, of building relationships and just consciousness,” Téllez said.
Téllez mentioned the Cinco de Mayo sobriety run that took place on April 30 as an alternative that challenges what this holiday has become, especially with the connotation that you have to drink.
“It’s basically speaking against this commodification and appropriation of this alleged holiday that people in Mexico celebrate,” she said. “So they’re doing something in response and trying to create a different consciousness around it.”
Téllez said it’s a difficult time where people who identify as chicano/a or Mexican-American face a rhetoric against the country of their origin.
“I think that we have to recognize that, as Mexican people, we have been, especially in the state of Arizona, on this land for hundreds of years, you know, if not always,” she said, “We’re an essential part of the community, and we need to recognize our cultures and our histories matter, and so doing that any small way possible, I think, is always a step in the right direction.”
Magaña, too, provided ways to celebrate El Cinco de Mayo.
“There are plenty ways other than putting on a horrible costume and getting drunk that you can actually appreciate Mexicans and Mexican culture,” he said.
Magana said people can volunteer for immigrant rights organizations, call senators and show solidarity. They can get involved in the initiatives in town doing something to protect Mexican-Americans and immigrants. Magaña even said that people can go to Mexico if they really want to celebrate.
“They can go to Mexico and spend their money there and do it in a way that’s respectful,” Magaña said.
Celebrating the famed holiday can be done, according to Magaña, by reaching out to friends and acquaintances.
“So if you know that somebody who is planning on going out and celebrating in that way, or you see them putting on their costume, I think that you can have a frank and honest discussion about why it’s offensive and why it’s problematic,” he said.
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