How Not to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

05/04/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

About a year ago I read an eloquent and powerful article on Cinco de Mayo by Sudie Hoffman at the Zinn Educational Project. In this must-read blog post, Hoffman correctly names the damaging ethnic stereotypes embodied in the commercial appropriation of this day as it is celebrated in the United States.

I remember discussing Cinco de Mayo in a Mexican Studies class at the University of Texas at Austin's Institute of Latin America Studies, back in 1992 when I was a student there. Henry Selby, then the Director of the Mexican Center, went over the history of the holiday -- the 1862 Mexican victory in a battle with France, which delayed (but did not prevent) the French march into Mexico City. The details of this battle are still remembered in the state of Puebla, but largely ignored in the rest of the country. "Now why," he asked, "would a minor military victory become a national holiday?"

The answer lies in the name of one of the principal Mexican officers in that battle -- General Porfirio Díaz. The elevation of Cinco de Mayo was an essential part of his political rise to power, and fourteen years later, Díaz seized control of Mexico, beginning the Porfiriato -- a brutal 35 year rule that ended only with the Mexican Revolution. Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that relatively few actual Mexicans pay much attention to the day.

Cinco de Mayo in the United States recalls none of this. Instead, people here drink beer and tequila, wear fake sombreros, eat North American versions of Mexican food that would never be served in most of Mexico, and unwittingly reinforce a host of damaging stereotypes about Mexicans and Mexican culture.


Why do we do this? Why do good, thoughtful people who would never think to celebrate African American culture with fried chicken, watermelons, and Sambo figurines nevertheless feel it perfectly appropriate to "honor" Mexico with racist tropes?

I don't have an answer to this. I hate to think people actually believe those stereotypes, but it's likely some do. Or maybe they simply don't stop to think about how hurtful and damaging those kinds of images can be.

On the other hand, there is a reason Cinco de Mayo came to the U.S., and it wasn't to celebrate a dictator. In the 1960s Chicano activists thought that this day might become a bridge to better understanding and acceptance of Mexican Americans in the United States, and a window to authentic Mexican culture. It didn't turn out that way, but there is no reason we cannot return to that initial intent.

If you want to celebrate Mexico on Cinco de Mayo, here are some positive things you can do:

  • Read up on Mexican history -- there are lots of good primers online.
  • If you want Mexican food, try to find a good non-chain Mexican restaurant owned by people actually from Mexico - otherwise look up some authentic recipes online.
  • Read a classic Mexican novel -- Pedro Páramo or Como agua para chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate) are readily available in translation - or see the movies.
  • Listen to authentic Mexican music.
  • Set yourself firmly and publicly against racist laws and policies that target Mexicans and other Latino people.
  • Learn about Mexican Americans in the United States.
  • Support organizations that work for immigrant justice.
  • Consider celebrating 16 de Septiembre -- Mexican Independence Day -- instead.

What ever you do, please think about what you are doing and leave the racist stereotypes behind.

(This post originally appeared on The Song and the Sigh.)