This Saturday, people across the United States will be tempted to don sombreros and drink excessive quantities of tequila in celebration of a significant date in Mexican history, Cinco de Mayo.
But on Wednesday, May 2, over 80 University of Oregon students and community members gathered at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History to learn about the history of Cinco de Mayo and have a conversation about the way the holiday is portrayed in the U.S. They discussed how stereotypical celebrations of the holiday in the states misrepresent Mexican culture and belittle the day’s historical significance. UO Professor of Spanish Analisa Taylor led the discussion, which was the final “Ideas on Tap” event of the year.
During her lecture, “Mock Celebrations of Mexican Culture in Occupied America,” Taylor said that although many people in the U.S. use the day as an excuse to get drunk, Cinco de Mayo actually commemorates the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over the French Empire at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Fearing bankruptcy following two civil wars, Mexican President Benito Juárez issued a moratorium on all foreign debt payments in 1861. The moratorium prompted Britain, Spain and France — to whom Mexico was indebted — to send naval forces to Mexico to intervene. At the Battle of Pueblo, the French army outnumbered the Mexicans by more than 2-to-1.
“Mexican children learn about the Battle of Pueblo at a young age,” Taylor said. But according to her, people in Mexico don’t take the day off, and they certainly don’t use the day as an excuse to get drunk. Commemorations of the battle are more about creating a proud national narrative in schools rather than celebrating a holiday, Taylor said.
Following the discussion about Cinco de Mayo’s history, Taylor presented five responses to a survey conducted by her colleague in the Department of Romance Languages, Claudia Holguín Mendoza. The survey asked UO Latinx students how they think Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the U.S. today.
“It’s only a reason to have a party for the U.S.,” Taylor said reading one response to the survey. “The majority of people do not understand what Cinco de Mayo represents.”
Many people in the audience echoed the ideas Taylor presented in the survey’s responses when asked about how they perceive the holiday.
“I thought [the event] started an important dialogue about the often overlooked history of Cinco de Mayo and how we can combat the racist interpretations of the holiday in modern-day America,” senior Spanish and accounting double-major Emily Huang told the Emerald after the event.
Huang said she thought the event was important, but she added that these events can be like “speaking into an echo chamber,” in which the people who attend are already savvy to the event’s message. To combat that issue, Huang uses social media to convey important social information to a broader audience than those who attend such events.
“Every year when [Cinco de Mayo] rolls around I try to share a PSA about cultural appropriation on Facebook,” Huang said.
Professor Taylor, who led the discussion, concluded the event by stating that people in the U.S. have the potential to reframe the current misconceptions about Cinco de Mayo in a positive way.
“We can understand that celebrating Cinco de Mayo is about celebrating Mexican valor, Mexican ingeniousness and Mexican history,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t have to be about participating in a derogatory ritual. It really could be something positive.”