Given the recent mobilization against undocumented individuals and the massive following of Trump supporters that have endorsed his plans to “put up a wall,” it may come as a surprise that America’s love of Mexican culture lives on through the annually-celebrated Cinco de Mayo holiday.
Cinco de Mayo has always held problematic implications of cultural appropriation, from the “Border Patrol”-themed Mexican parties thrown across college campuses, to the public’s general infatuation with donning fake mustaches and sombreros – you won’t find a more complicated relationship than the one between the American people and Mexican traditions.
The widely-celebrated holiday is comprised of a lot more than just tacos and tequila, however. It commemorates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over France at the Battle of Puebla. It is frequently confused with Mexican Independence Day by non-traditional celebrators, even though this event occurred about 50 years before the Franco-Mexican War. The history of Cinco de Mayo is nothing short of an underdog story. During the time leading up to the battle, Mexico struggled with the heavily-accumulated debts of several nations, including Spain, England, and France. Mexican President, Benito Juarez, publically declared financial insufficiency, and stopped repaying the debts owed to foreign nations.
France saw Mexico’s fiscal instability as an opportunity to expand its territorial control, and used the debt crisis as an excuse to move forward with an invasion. When the Mexican militia confronted the French troops in Puebla, they discovered that they were outnumbered by a margin of almost 2 to 1. Against all odds, the Mexicans prevailed, relying on the aid of indigenous locals to help defeat the battalions of French troops. The momentum from their victory was often credited as the inspiration to the Union’s struggle during the Civil War in the United States.
With these deep roots of Mexican culture overlapping into American history, it is no wonder that people continue to participate in the commemorative gestures of a celebration barely acknowledged in its country of origin. Irony, however, does lie in the fact that what was once a historically-symbolic reminder of Mexican resistance to imperialism, is now a colonized cultural byproduct of American capitalism.
The United States is no stranger to the disenfranchisement of Latinx communities, and particularly the criminalization of undocumented individuals. Regardless of how crucial undocumented labor is to the U.S. food and farming infrastructure, immigrants continue to lack basic human rights and attainable pathways to secure citizenship.
Instead, there is an increasing number of alarming, anti-immigrant laws that are being pushed by right-leaning legislators and their political mouthpieces. With rhetoric that unabashedly describes undocumented individuals as “rapists” and “drug dealers,” politicians continue to indoctrinate false narratives of “illegals” amongst conservative voters nationwide.
For a majority of Mexicans, the appropriation of their culture and traditions is secondary to the blatant discrimination and human rights abuses they face in their day-to-day lives. The mainstream obsession with Mexican cuisine and festiveness is, more or less, a figurative slap in the face when it comes to the reality of Latinx marginalization.
In the U.S., the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency has continued to administer a nationwide campaign to deport undocumented citizens, thanks to the enactment of the Priority Enforcement Program (PEP) implemented by the Obama administration.
Once arrested, detainees are sent to immigrant detention centers that have been known to be overcrowded and under-resourced. In September of 2015, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights released a 130-page report detailing the conditions of detention facilities around the country. The reports indicated that individuals were frequently denied the right to legal counsel, ignored during medical emergencies, and sometimes sexually assaulted in the facilities. It was also not uncommon to have unaccompanied minors at the centers, as about 100,000 children have sought refuge in the United States since 2014.
Though many undocumented folks face numerous barriers in their path to obtain citizenship, they continue to sustain their home communities and contribute to the economic growth of the nation. The parameters of the current legal system make it nearly impossible to become a U.S. resident without having a family member already in the United States. Even so, the waiting period for legal citizenship leaves undocumented individuals in vulnerable and unsafe positions – often leading to deportation for miniscule crimes, such as driving without a license.
With seemingly infinite obstacles in their path, undocumented students around the country have now started defying the standards of prejudice that kept many of their parents in fear. Youth across the nation have emerged from the ‘shadows’ and voiced their outrage at the systems currently in place. This mobilization is just the beginning in a long fight ahead, but it allows at least a glimpse at the tenacity and strength of Mexican communities in the U.S.
Whether they are overthrowing French battalions, or challenging xenophobic politics, the spirit of La Puebla lives on.
Happy Cinco de Mayo.
Photo: A painting of Benito Juarez and the Battle of Puebla. | A Celebration of Women