Ways of seeing: Cinco de mayo is more than a party
Last week was cinco de mayo. For many Americans, it’s just another day. For others, it’s a day to celebrate something Mexican. Mexican culture? Mexican independence? Most Americans actually have no idea.
For years, I made it a tradition to host a party either on or around cinco de mayo. The pandemic along with other circumstances kept me from doing it last year. This year I am hoping to have something small, even if it is a little later than the actual 5th of May.
I’d have these parties partially because parties are fun and partially because it gave me an excuse to cook a huge Mexican meal, just like my grandmothers often would for just about any family gathering when I was a child, and partially because it gave me an opportunity to teach my circle of friends about the history of Mexico. For a while, these parties were in different places as I moved around for grad school and research: Vermont, Washington, D.C., Arizona, northern California, southern California, Texas, and Vermont again. Over the years, new friends would come. Every year, my tradition remained the same: lots of food, a fair amount of alcohol and other beverages and then after about an hour and a half, I’d up and basically recount the story of what cinco de mayo actually is and why we celebrate it. Today, I find myself wanting to use this column to expand my audience.
After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, finding political stability was quite a challenge. In the decades that followed, disputes over how best to redistribute land, religious wars, and other infighting put the young nation in a precarious financial situation. By 1861, under the administration of President Benito Juarez, Mexico defaulted on repaying debts to Britain, Spain, and France. Juarez was able to negotiate with Britain and Spain, but Napoleon III opted to move into Mexico and attempt to colonize it for France. By the end of 1861, France sent several troops into Mexico and installed a French emperor.
By spring of 1862, Benito Juarez who had been pushed north, organized a small Mexican army and sent them to the town of Puebla in east central Mexico, where they did what they could to prepare for battle. On May 5th, the Mexicans, outnumbered by the French, pushed them out of Puebla, bolstering Mexican strength in the ultimate victory, which would come later, with some help from the United States.
Even though the Battle of Puebla was not the final confrontation with the French (the French did not actually fully withdraw for five more years), it became a very important symbol for Mexican resistance to foreign domination at the time.
In the years that followed, people north of the border made note of it and celebrated it. Folks in California and Texas had celebrations on the fifth of May, but many scholars note that it was not really until the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of the Chicano movement and after, the Mexican Americans really latched on to the date, once again, as a symbol of Mexican resilience and empowerment. South of the border, however, large celebrations, aside from localized ones in and around Puebla, were non-existent and still are not common. In the 1980s, cinco de mayo became incredibly commercialized, mostly by beer companies, which popularized the holiday in the United States even more. In doing so, however, it also spread inaccurate and racist stereotypes of Mexicans as people who enjoy drinking and partying, perhaps a little too much.
Over the past several decades, these negative tropes have dominated all messaging about cinco de mayo. Stores sell variety packs of Mexican beer every May. Commercials show Mexicans drinking in sombreros. Sometimes people even dress up like Mexicans and go out drinking. Cultural appropriation abounds and the original reason for remembering the bravery of those who fought against the invasion of a foreign government gets lost.
These kinds of distortions and stereotypes are important to challenge and correct because if we allow them to permeate our understandings of Mexican culture, they can lead us down dangerous paths. I just finished teaching a class on Latino/a/x culture and one thing that we talked about is cultivation theory — this is the theory that when we are exposed to something over and over in media, film, or television we begin to think of it as true, whether or not it is accurate. So, if we constantly see Mexican people depicted in a certain way (drunk, lazy, etc.), at some level, we start to believe it.
Why does this matter? Because seeing people negatively — as inferior — allows us to treat them as such. It makes it easier to do so. If that seems wrong, ask yourself if you think people should be in cages. If your answer is no, revisit that question in the context of the border.
Knowing history allows all of us to better understand context and then correct assumptions and challenge what we see. The way that Americans see cinco de mayo is one of many examples of the ways that we twist the truth and perpetuate negative stereotypes that can have profound effects on the Latinx population, but of course these kinds of things can be applied to many other marginalized groups.
Mary E. Mendoza is an assistant professor of history and Latino/a Studies at Penn State University. She lives in Weybridge, Vermont.
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