First published in The Huffington Post on 05/06/2012
It was Cinco de Mayo. People of Mexican descent all across the United States were supposed to celebrate the 1862 Mexican victory over a large, invading French army in Puebla, Mexico. This was, as Roberto Lovato described it, the «victory of the badly-equipped, but inspired Mexican guerrilla army that fought and defeated the far better-equipped forces of Napoleon III’s decaying French Empire.»
Additionally, Mexicans-Americans were supposed to commemorate, on this 150th anniversary, that this was also a victory for the Union Army in the American Civil War, as UCLA Professor David Hayes-Bautista described to HuffPost Voces’ Victoria Infante.
«Latinos here supported [President Abraham] Lincoln. They supported freedom, and democracy. The French invaded Mexico to remove democracy, and to impose over Mexico a treaty with the Confederation,» Hayes-Bautista explained.
Cinco de Mayo festivities — which originated with Mexicans and Mexican Americans in California — simultaneously celebrate legitimate Mexican patriotism as well as solidarity with progressive thought, such as was embodied by the anti-slavery North in the 1860’s.
But they don’t. This year, like the previous twenty, we celebrated instead, ‘Drinko de Mayo’.
On Thursday, President Obama rightly acknowledged the Latino contribution to the country in his annual Cinco de Mayo event, infused with election year fervor.
…but a resort in Las Vegas sent invitations to «Drink, Dance, and Party for Cinco de Mayo 2012» with Corona beers and Don Julio tequila shots.
An airline advertised «Cinco de Mayo specials» with discounted trips to «Cancun, Cabo, and more when you book by May 8.»
The traditional Fiesta Broadway, touted as «the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the world,» was sponsored by Seagram and advertised that half a million people would attend the festival in downtown Los Angeles. Perhaps fortunately for the residents of the area, La Opinion newspaper estimated the crowd at approximately 15,000.
In expectations of the revelry In Southern California, the California Highway Patrol deployed «saturation patrols onto freeways and in unincorporated county jurisdictions.»
In New Orleans, the «Jazz and Heritage Festival served up margaritas and other Latin fare… as it recognized Cinco de Mayo with a lineup peppered with acts such as Mexican singer Paulina Rubio.»
And elsewhere, reported the Associated Press, there were plans for parties including in Houston, where «ballet folklorico dancers will stomp…»to traditional Mexican music in a city park. New York City will close parts of Spanish Harlem and Queens for street fairs… Albuquerque honors the day with a Mariachi concert and free cab rides»… and «even West Des Moines, Iowa, has an all-day festival with Mexican food, artwork and live music.»
So, instead of proudly remembering their victorious contribution to this democratic country, Mexicans – both immigrants and longtime residents — were joined by many, many others, and they drank.
Because in the last few decades, as HuffPost reporter Carlos Harrison wrote, Cinco de Mayo has been «co-opted by alcohol companies.»
«It has been transformed by corporate America. It has become, really, a holiday that big business has used to enter the Latino consumer market. And so they’re making millions off this holiday without really honoring the tradition and the history behind the actual holiday,» said Professor José Alamillo of California State University-Channel Island to Harrison.
Celebrations, festivities and holidays have an interesting way of undergoing historic metamorphoses. Cinco de Mayo is not the only one to be so distorted.
In the same way, and coinciding by just a few days, May Day (May 1) has been transformed in a somewhat similar manner.
A national holiday in close to 100 countries, May Day was long rejected as International Worker’s Day and replaced, first with Americanization Day in 1921 and then with Loyalty Day in 1958, dedicated to the promotion of patriotism.
But May Day is as American as apple pie. It began in Chicago, in 1884, through a series of demonstrations aimed at securing the eight-hour work day we now take for granted, before spreading onwards to the rest of the world.
Since then, however, its meaning has since been distorted in many places.
Instead of free people marching out by choice, masses have been bused to squares, provided with banners and ordered to shout slogans supporting specific regimes. In some countries the people were completely ignored and replaced by stone-faced armed soldiers, tanks and ballistic missiles parading in unison.
But beginning in 2006, Latino immigrant rights activists embraced the original spirit of May Day as a time to act for the betterment of the community. Millions of them took the streets in huge numbers demanding immigration reform and protesting HR 4437 or the Sensenbrenner Law, an act of Congress that would have enacted a forceful «solution» to undocumented immigration. The Sensenbrenner Law died on the Senate floor, unable to repeat its sweeping victory in the House.
This practice of immigrant rights groups marching and demonstrating on May 1st has continued. In 2010, they marched in opposition to SB 1070, the Arizona anti-immigration law now before the Supreme Court, which seeks to to allow for segregation and racial profiling in the name of the fight against undocumented immigration. (Here’s my coverage of that event – in Spanish)
But times have changed. This year, while pro-immigrant rallies once again set the tone of May Day in Los Angeles, Jorge Macías reported for HuffPost Voces (in Spanish) that there were only 5,000 participants.
The Associated Press reported that the low turnout at this year’s May Day protests showed how weak the pro-immigration movement has become.
On Cinco de Mayo, the number of individuals who went to plazas and barrios lured by promises of beer, tequila and colorful mariachis was probably much larger.
That being said, Cinco de Mayo could become meaningful again, as a day for Immigrant Rights, a day for American Latinos to march and be proud of their heritage and accomplishments. We should bridge the day’s national prominence with the spirit of May Day, and turn a commercial fiesta of drinking, into a party celebrating both the heart and the mind, highlighting recognition and reconciliation, or as a May Day banner said, «Esperanza, respeto y reforma» – Hope, respect and [immigration] reform.
Like in 1862, when Mexicans stood up valiantly for the cause of liberty in Mexico and in the United States.