How to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo Without Cultural Appropriation

It IS possible to have fun celebrating Cinco de Mayo without disrespecting an entire country.

Susan Kuligowski May 05, 2016
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Did you know that you can have fun celebrating Cinco de Mayo without disrespecting an entire country? It’s true.

In more truth news, it’s quite possible that you didn’t realize that running out to a costume store to purchase a sombrero and fake mustache to “Mexican up” while bragging to friends about how much tequila you plan to consume in recognition of the Americanized version of this Mexican holiday might be offensive to some. It is.

The truth is, cultural appropriation (otherwise known as racial appropriation) is the quickest and easiest way to (possibly unintentionally) tick off a whole group of people by buying into the sometimes (possibly unknowingly) disrespectful stereotypes we see plastered across advertisements leading up to this often misunderstood day.

Since the truth is now out there, here’s another one–I had no idea what cultural appropriation was until I began to research this article. There are lots of definitions and opinions on the subject, but the first one I found was: “Cultural appropriation is when white media trivializes and adopts aspects of other cultures without proper recognition, representation and respect.” The article goes on to provide some guidelines the reader may follow so as not to cross the line.

(So far as the “white media” remark, I think a more fair definition would be to replace the word white media with “general population,” to include individuals, organizations, and businesses who tend to trivialize cultural events, even perhaps with the “best” of intentions, but without having taken the time to educate themselves on what they’re selling.)

Another definition, as found on good ole Wikipedia is: “Cultural appropriation is the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture. Cultural appropriation is seen by some as controversial, notably when elements of a minority culture are used by members of the cultural majority; this is seen as wrongfully oppressing the minority culture or stripping it of its group identity and intellectual property rights. This view of cultural appropriation is sometimes termed cultural misappropriation.  According to authors in the field, cultural (mis)appropriation differs from acculturation or assimilation in that the ‘appropriation’ or ‘misappropriation’ refers to the adoption of these cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of the dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressed, stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture.”

Just like some members of every race, creed, and color across these United States claim to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day—complete with the wearing of the green, leprechaun pipes, and mugs fulla beer—so it seems many of us have also adopted Cinco de Mayo into our American culture as if it was ours to begin with. Truthfully, it was not. (Nor was St. Patrick’s Day, for that matter.)

I’m of the opinion that most Americans do not go out of their way to disrespect other culture’s special days, but in reading up on racial appropriation, I have come to understand and appreciate that blindly celebrating a holiday without truly understanding or appreciating the significance of it or the people it represents (other than what a colorful 2-for-1 special at the local bar has to say about it) does seem a tad empty and shallow.

I’m also of the opinion that some racial appropriation is not necessarily a bad thing. The U.S. is a great melting pot, after all, and one of our greatest strengths as a nation has been the fact that we have been (or should be) open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Being attracted to another culture’s art, music, or food should not be viewed as a negative if and when it brings people together.

And so, to help you to rethink the way you approach Cinco de Mayo or any other borrowed holiday in the future, consider doing these things first:

Look it Up

You don’t need to go to college to learn about Cinco de Mayo. A quick Google search reveals that Cinco de Mayo is a historically significant holiday celebrating the Battle of Puebla in Mexico. It was during this battle in 1862 that Mexico defeated (in what was considered to be an unlikely win) invading French forces. However, Cinco de Mayo should not be confused with Mexico’s Independence Day, which falls on September 16th and is more widely celebrated in Mexico than is Cinco de Mayo.

You also may be surprised to learn that Cinco de Mayo is not celebrated in Mexico the way it is in the United States, where in certain areas of the country, especially those with large Mexican-American populations, festivals are held and people of all backgrounds celebrate together.

I don’t know about you, but I enjoy learning about what other cultures do. If you have Mexican friends, why not take the opportunity to ask what they do to mark the day. Perhaps you’ll even be invited over for a more authentic experience. But don’t be surprised if they don’t do anything at all.

And then what?

Look, everyone loves a good party, and where I come from, it doesn’t take much for people of all backgrounds to come up with any and every idea to celebrate—be it Greek or Italian festivals, a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Dyngus Day (Polish pride, people!), chicken wing festivals, breaking of ice booms . . . you name it, we celebrate it–especially coming off of the typically colder winter season.

So say yes to celebrating, but also yes to doing it right.

Why not take the time to look into an authentic Mexican celebration rather than accepting caricatures of Mexicans that make a mockery of a day that was originally meant to commemorate an important win on the battlefield in Puebla, Mexico? Next time your coworker asks if you want to go out for a drink on Cinco de Mayo, take the opportunity to ask her if she knows anything about it (see above for the short answer if you’re too lazy to investigate it on your own). If she gets it right, spring for the first cerveza!

This is How We do It

Several cities across the country hold large festivals, parades, and parties, where you’ll find traditional Mexican music, dancing, and food. Los Angeles, California is home to the largest American Cindo de Mayo celebration (even larger than the celebration held in Puebla) called the Festival de Fiesta Broadway and hundreds of thousands of people attend annually. What better way to learn about a different ethnic group than to enjoy its culture first hand?

If you’re not close to a main event, most Mexican restaurants typically feature mariachi bands and special decorations to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. Why not partake in some delicious Mexican cuisine and a margarita? Rather stay in? Consider hosting your own party. Do a little research and put up some festive decorations and try your hand at making popular appetizers such as guacamole and salsa or have flan for dessert. And while it’s okay to wear the colors that support our Mexican friends, think twice before dressing up and going out as if it’s Halloween. Need some music? Consider making homemade maracas!

Ask your kids if they’ve heard about or learned about Cinco de Mayo in school. Often, districts will include units on the holiday, decorate classrooms, or sample Mexican foods. If not, consider heading to the local library to see what literature may be available. A little education goes a long way. And providing positive and respectful examples of how to celebrate a holiday taken from another culture is a great step in forging new and better relationships while avoiding negative stereotypes and misunderstandings.

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Susan Kuligowski

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she's not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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