05/06/2014 08:53 pm ET Updated Jul 06, 2014

Cinco de Mayo: A Different Take

Cinco de Mayo came and went, and this time, it developed its latest wrinkle: the wide-spread charge that it is politically incorrect, corrupt and unwholesome. The charge follows a pattern that we are long familiar with -- that the American holiday has little to do with the event it commemorates, that it is simply an organ of capitalism, that it becomes the breeding ground for the mold spores of racial stereotypes.

There is some truth to that. Most people just don't know what Cinco de Mayo is about, beyond the fact that it is an excuse to guzzle tequila. They do not know that the event commemorates an heroic battle for the city of Puebla. Not Mexican Independence Day.

Indeed, it is an obscure holiday -- one that Mexicans South of the border do not celebrate with as much intensity as gringos up North. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the defeat of the French in Mexico by a force of men who should have lost. It is notable, but for most of its history only notable regionally.

The recent critique of Cinco de Mayo is that this kind of event is terrible because it is not harmless but insidious -- drunken men and women frolicking in sombreros, imitating Speedy Gonzales, only serve to reinforce the glee in racialism, so the logic goes.

And there is some truth to that, too -- this is the time of year that the image of the Lazy Mexican -- that perpetual brown-skinned napper, ensconced underneath a cactus with his legs pulled to his chest and his sombrero shading his eyes -- gets trotted out.

I'm sure this gets old for many Mexican Americans.

Me? I'm entirely sympathetic. I don't personally celebrate Cinco de Mayo for that exact reason. And the thought of rubbing shoulders with slobbering drunk racialists is revolting.

But part of me wonders if the sad exploitation of Mexican tradition also has some residual value. After all, the point of a stereotype is that it makes things that are invisible suddenly perceptible. The Art Historian E.H. Gombrich tells us that stereotypes originally were used by artists to train themselves to see and reproduce visual experience. We can draw "from life" -- we can therefore see -- because we have a scheme already in place in our mind. And this allows things that we cannot readily see to suddenly come into focus.

So here is my take, which I will introduce as anecdote. I was in Brasil a few years back, right when the craze for Chinese tattoos became a national obsession. Everywhere on the beaches frolicked beautiful, brown-skinned people showing off tattoos that featured Chinese characters for luck, happiness, beauty. Often those people didn't know what the very words on their ripped, tanned bodies actually meant. Many tattoos were drawn crudely by artists who clearly did not grasp the fundamental principles of calligraphy; none of the strokes held together; none cohered. Many tattoos were simply applied with stencils, and so the words were written permanently and backwards; monuments to ignorance and poor life choices.

"Look at that," my East Asian wife nudged me. It was a little girl, no more than ten years of age, sporting with her family in the waves. "That's supposed to say Luck." But the tattoo had obviously been applied with a stencil; the character was spelled backwards. And so this tattoo that was supposed to commemorate Good Fortune was its opposite -- un-lucky-ness. You could say that the tattoo had cursed the girl for life but I saw the family -- frolicking, happy, blissful -- in the waves and could only think of them as blessed.

For me, the broader context of the tattoos was the fact that China now was everywhere in Brasil. China is a major economic force, and a great importer of Brasil's raw products. There was even a float that year at Carnaval, commemorating the importance of soy production to the Brazilian economy, which is emerging as a juggernaut on the world stage mainly due to the alliances that are forged across the ocean in China.

So for me, the tattoos were the sign of a culture grappling with the meaning of this encounter --turning it over in their minds, getting it wrong, getting it backwards, getting it sometimes right --and arriving at a dawning awareness of a mental coupling that is happening, that is manifest, that is all wrong but potentially, eventually, all right.

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