From no acknowledgment at all, to a proud celebration of "Mexican-ness," to a commercialized beerfest, Cinco de Mayo has seen many transformations in the last half-century. It is time to transform it again and recover meaning.
I grew up before Cinco de Mayo was celebrated in this country. I grew up at a time when Cinco de Mayo became a day that celebrated a victory (May 5, 1862) by an underdog, a ragtag Mexican army that repelled the invading French, the most powerful army in the world.
I grew up when people began to confuse Cinco de Mayo for Mexican Independence Day (September 16). Perhaps that's when the problem started, as I grew up at a time when that celebration transformed or was converted by beer companies into an excuse for excessive beer-guzzling.
I grew up a time when the words "wetback" and "beaner" were synonymous with the word Mexican. Those insults were uttered regularly in public and worse; it wasn't simply whites hurling those insults; many Mexican Americans were often the worst offenders, doing their hardest to show the world that they were Spanish or Americans, not Mexicans. They would never be caught dead speaking Spanish.
I grew up a time when the word Mexican itself was considered a high insult. It connoted being Indian. "Spanish" - a person from Spain - was the proper term. People sometimes apologized for referring to us as "Mexicans." That's kind of why the term "Hispanic" later caught on; it was the closest you could come to calling us "Spanish." Speaking Spanish was the ultimate telltale sign that they might be Mexican, the quintessential unwelcome foreigner.
I grew up at a time when the brown color of our skin was considered both dirty and ugly. It was a time when brown kids were shamed into wanting/wishing they were white.
All this was during an era when it was also pounded into us that we were dirty Mexicans, not Americans. While we couldn't change our color, we were expected to lose our accents, yesterday. We were supposed to hide our Mexican flags, our music and anything else that reminded people of our ties to Mexico.
At stores, "We don't speak Spanish," was the national motto as store employees virtually chased us away. So too "Go back to Mexico!"
That was circa the early 1960s in Southern California. The nation, really.
During that era, Mexicans were supposed to be meek. In the eyes of the law, we were always wrong and always guilty and, minimally, didn't belong in this country. The attitude was the same in the schools, the media and in the public square. But then something changed.
Next thing you knew, people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Sal Castro and Ruben Salazar were in the fields, on the streets and in the news. Chavez and Huerta were labor leaders. Castro was a schoolteacher and Salazar a reporter. They taught us a different way - showed us a different way. Chavez and Huerta were organizing in the fields, fighting for the rights and dignity of all workers. They organized upon the legacy of many decades of labor organizing (Long Road to Delano, Kushner, 1975), including that of striking Pilipino workers. Castro supported young students in mass walkouts, demanding a better education. All this blossomed into a powerful national human rights movement - or linked up into one, perhaps more accurately. And Salazar was there as a respectable mainstream journalist to cover this explosive movement, only to be killed by a sheriff's deputy while covering the law enforcement assault against the National Chicano Moratorium Against the Vietnam War rally on Aug 29, 1970 ("Ruben Salazar: Man in the Middle, " PBS, April 29).
This movement didn't have a name at first; it included the building of La Raza Unida Party and a demand for equality and land rights. Really, it was all about dignity. All of a sudden, people stopped being meek. A feeling of "brown pride" permeated the nation's barrios. No longer was there anything wrong with our skin color. The era of hat-in-hand Mexicans was over. "Si Señor" was replaced by "Si, Se Puede." Now, there was a militancy. It was the era of Chicano Power! That's when "We are not a minority" and "We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us" became etched into our subconscious.
That's when we woke up one day with a new holiday, one that, in effect, celebrated everything about this movement: Cinco de Mayo. It was a day of celebration and a day of defiance. It was a day where cultural pride was on full display. It was a day for music, dance and the arts. It was also about voice; a day when our communities would vent our political concerns, i.e. the lack of justice and equality, police brutality, immigration raids, the dropout crisis, etc.
But it was not long before the events were taken over by corporate sponsors; those sponsors began to discourage the political concerns. "Give them folklore; feed them and get 'em drunk" instead seemed to become the new message. And yes, it became a recipe for disaster; drinking, overpriced bad food, partying and violence … and the police were always there, ready to step in with often violent "mop-up" operations.
And thus was born our modern Cinco de Mayo celebration: beer, beer and plenty of margaritas. And it spread to the mainstream. Happy Drinko de Mayo! What are we celebrating? Who cares? Drink up. And yes, alcoholism and violence are rampant in our barrios, but who cares, drink up.
Well, across the country, a new consciousness is setting in. It is time to take back Cinco. For example, in Tucson, students from the University of Arizona, along with the Indigenous Calpolli Teoxicalli group of families, will be holding a sobriety run on May 3. And then a healthy food festival, along with the unveiling of a healthy cookbook. Yeah, we have another health-related crisis in Southern Arizona: sky-high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It's actually a nationwide epidemic. So this year, it's a new day, with new ways to celebrate and commemorate el Cinco: the desire to bring about a healthy community. Perhaps in the near future, this will be the way all communities celebrate Cinco de Mayo.