Reclaiming Cinco de Mayo

or Why I, a Third Generation Chicano celebrates Cinco de Mayo

By Jake Prendez on 5/5/2015

In my M.E.Ch.A days there was much debate over whether we should host a Cinco de Mayo event at the University of Washington or not. On one side we had those to felt it was a “fake” Mexican holiday and just a day for Beer companies to target our Communities. On the other side were folks who felt that is was the one day the university would basically give us a blank check to host a cultural event. We would usually get a cool guest speaker, some Danzantes, some folklorico dancers and give away some tacos. Cinco de Mayo was never something I celebrated as a kid so it was all pretty new to me when I got to college. One year some kids from a local daycare center were brought to the event and sat close to the stage. It was amazing to see these young brown faces mesmerized by the Danzantes and Folklorico dancers. Perhaps, there was something important about Cinco de Mayo?

I went into research mode to see what Cinco de Mayo was really all about. First off Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. It is the commemoration of the Battle of Puebla, in which Mexican troops (mostly indigenous) fought off a larger and better equipped French army. It was a short lived victory but it made a powerful statement. If you read into the works of Dr. David Hayes-Bautista from UCLA you will see the importance of the Mexican involvement with the French army on the American Civil War. Dr. Hayes-Bautista contends that due to Mexico’s involvement with the French, they did not have the resources to assist the Confederate Army even though they supported them. So in other words Mexico’s fight against the French changed the trajectory of the Civil War.

So why do Americans and especially Chicanos celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Cinco de Mayo is still big in Puebla Mexico but not so much the rest of the country. There are conflicting stories on why it took so strongly with Mexicans living in the US. What’s important is that Chicano Activists of the 60’s wanted a holiday to promote Chicano Pride and nationalism. Cinco de Mayo was chosen because it represented a battle in which an underdog, underclass, mostly indigenous group defeated an invading world power that represented oppression and anglo supremacy. It resonated with Chicanos who felt like the indigenous underclass battling an oppressive regime in the United States. It was the feeling of if our antepasados could do it so can we, Si Se Puede!

The problem over the years that Cinco de Mayo was co-opted by beer companies and makers of cheap sombreros. Today it has become Bud Light Presents Cinco de Drinko. So should we abandon all hope and strap Cinco de Mayo? It’s like my good friend and Chicano Studies professor Ralph de Unamuno said, “You will surely run into Cinco de Mayo haters tomorrow. The haters range from jingoistic jerks to those that have an inept understanding of the history of the Southwest…sometimes both. Cinco de Mayo haters never hate on Saint Patricks Day or tell the Irish/Irish-Americans to put their Irish flags, "Kiss Me I'm Irish" shirts, or green beer away. You never see these people waiving the Stars and Stripes, American flag shirts, and drinking red, white, and blue beer to taunt Irish Americans or take similar actions at Italian American festivals. Nor will they question the authenticity of those cultural festivals.”

So to the Cinco de Mayo haters I say ya basta. I say we reclaim Cinco de Mayo for our people for those children that sat in the front of the stage to watch the Danzantes. I say Cinco de Mayo for Chicanos! Now I’m not saying only Chicanos can enjoy and participate but what I am saying is that we organize events around the country with our communities in mind. What can we do on this day to celebrate and honor our ancestors and elders? What can we do today to uplift our communities? How can we use today to unify recent immigrants with 4th generation Mexican Americans? How can we use Cinco de Mayo to connect with other communities of color who are fighting against the same oppression? What can we do today to put a spotlight on the needs our gente? If we are going to be “acknowledged” today let’s make it count. If we organize events that focus on our communities and not putting on Mexican minstrel shows, all those people who participate (Black, White, Asian, Native American etc…) will get a more authentic presentation of our people.

Jake Prendez is a Los Angeles artist and activist.

Reprinted with permission