Amigos, It’s Not Cinco de Mayo

21 Sep

There’s something about a big group of gringos walking around with giant sombreros and big black mustaches that instantly rubbed me wrong. As the group walked by, Conan and I looked at each other, me with my nose all scrunched up, Conan with his eyebrows raised, both of us disapproving. But it took a minute to decide if I was just irritated by their ridiculousness- black bushy ‘staches clashing furiously with blonde hair, sombreros making way through the crowd like they owned the place- or if there was actually something offensive in the scenario. Are Conan and I just getting old and crotchety? I wondered.

We were at our town’s celebration of Independence Day. Yes, my amigos, Mexican independence happened in September, NOT on Cinco de Mayo.* (Skip the next couple lines if you already know about Mexican history.) Technically, what’s celebrated on September 16 is the declaration of a war for independence, called “El Grito de Dolores” (loosely translated as “the Cry of Dolores,” named after the small town of Dolores where it happened). The celebration usually begins on the evening/at night of the fifteenth, with the “grito” happening at midnight. In many towns, people go out and fire their guns into the air, I suppose in a sort of reveling-in-the-rebellion fashion. (And yes, every year people are injured by the falling bullets and other gun-related mishaps, just like every fourth of July people go to the hospital for fireworks injuries. But bless tradition for its tenacity!) Supposedly, in Puerto, nobody fires their gun at the town celebration, although some folks do in their neighborhoods. We didn’t stick around to find out, though, because the grito was happening much too far past Lucia’s (and my) bedtime (yikes, maybe I am old!). 

The celebration we attended was pretty entertaining, mustachioed gringos and all. Despite not starting till about 8pm, it was definitely a whole-family activity. There were rides- nothing wilder than those big chairs that spin in circles and the whole ride spins in another circle, and only one tame enough for my two year old. Lucia rode the merry-go-round twice since that was all there was for her, once with Mommy and once with Papi, which pleased her nicely. There was lots of food and drink- tlayudas and tacos and tostadas and atole and agua de sabor and of course beer (Corona or Victoria only, por supuesto). And there was entertainment galore! Singers and traditional dancers and bands abounded. We shared a tlayuda and hibiscus water, watched some of the events, had some roasted plantains with lechera (sweet, thick vanilla-flavored milk substance) to round out the night. It was definitely a good independence celebration. Although the best part of all was my four-day weekend, brought to me by those wondrous revolutionaries and the labor movements that came after them. (Thanks, Señor Villa and all activists after you. I finally caught up on sleep.)

Lucia on the merry go round, celebrating one of her countries' independence

Meanwhile, Conan and I discussed the situation and decided that no, we’re not just old and grumpy, and yes, the gringos walking around in that attire really were a bit offensive, despite the fact that the sombreros and fake mustaches were sold to them at the event by Mexican people. Perhaps if the sombrero thing weren’t such a raging stereotype of Mexicans to this day –nearly a century after the image’s origin- it wouldn’t be such a sore spot.

I think the problem is that the image of some short, stocky, bushy-mustached,dark-haired man wearing an oversized sombrero and slinging a rifle is still the image the U.S. has of the average, modern-day Mexican. While this is the image that was sold to the U.S. when rebel factions were asking for support during the revolution in the early 1900s, it is not even necessarily the real face of all revolutionaries at the time. And it certainly has zero to do with Mexicans today. But it’s become this big stereotype that’s remained since then, the sombrero especially, and every Mexican restaurant has one. Every beer store and bar acquires one, or at least a picture of one, for the 5th of May, although that’s not even Independence Day! The people going out drinking tequila and Corona in the U.S. mostly don’t even know what they’re celebrating, besides the drink specials (and I’m not begrudging you your drink specials; don’t get me wrong! But it’s good to know why.) Although the outstanding marketing tactics that promote “Cinco de Mayo” in the U.S. might have led you to believe that it was Mexican Independence Day, and understandably so.

Watching this mass of young gringos go by in their “I’m so Mexican” costumes was a bit like putting a sombrero on my business door for May 5th to sell an extra Corona. Maybe this group consisted of very sensitive and enlightened folks that were just dying to don mustaches, but it felt a bit like basking in ignorance. It looked a bit like making fun of the Mexican revolutionary image, which, as Conan said, is okay if you’re Mexican, but not so nice when you’re a foreigner. I don’t know how many other people actually even noticed this group, or if anyone else was offended. But since Conan doesn’t offend easily, I imagine he wasn’t the only one. And no, it’s not something horrible or totally racist. But it was probably pretty thoughtless.

It’s not like I expect people in the U.S. to know their Mexican history, when we usually only learn bits and pieces of U.S. history as it is. I don’t expect everyone to take classes in Mexican history, not even before they come for a visit. Just a little bit of consciousness, though, of stopping to think about what they were saying by participating in that way, could have gone a long way. Respect is such a little thing, that makes such a big difference, on Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day, and every other day of the year. So viva Mexico, outdated sombreros, gunshots, and all! And think about keeping your sombrero in the closet this year. 

*The fifth of May, aka “cinco de mayo” celebrates a battle in which the Mexican Army was particularly triumphant. It took place post-independence, against the French, in Puebla. It is mostly only celebrated in the U.S. and in the state of Puebla, Mexico.

An image from the War… Now the Ultimate Mexican Stereotype

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