Happy Cinco de Mayo

Growing up in white Chicago, Cinco de Mayo was not even on the radar, at least not in the 60’s and 70’s.  Upon moving to LA from New York, one of the biggest trades was the loss of readily available good Chinese food in exchange for readily available good Mexican food.  And thus in LA everyone is aware of Cinco de Mayo, not so much as a true cultural holiday (there are real celebrations to be sure, but it’s not most people’s Cinco de Mayo), but as a marketing opportunity for every joint in town that sells Margaritas.

The historic low-down on Cinco de Mayo is that the Mexicans decided to stop paying their foreign debt in 1861, causing the French to get angry and invade.  On Fifth of May, 1862, 4,000 Mexican soldiers won against 8,000 French soldiers in a battle at the town of Puebla.  Although the French subsequently prevailed and occupied Mexico… until the US pressured them to leave, ever since then Americans and particularly Mexican-Americans have tended to make a bigger deal of this holiday than do Mexicans proper.  Some people mistakenly think of Cinco de Mayo as Mexican Independence Day, which it is not—that holiday is September 16th.  It’s also not Day of the Dead—that’s November 2nd—a more numinous holiday with roots going back 3,000 years and not a scant hundred and forty-eight years.

What Cinco de Mayo has become is a celebration of Mexican heritage, something akin to St. Patty’s Day for the Irish.  So, in a sense, we can all get in touch with the colors, flavors, sounds and perhaps even the mystical aspects of Mexican culture today, taking pride in our roots if we are Mexican-American, and ever broadening our sense of Self and community if we are not, on at least on the surface, even remotely Latin.

When I worked in the group home there was a Mexican-American boy in my care who was extremely shy, tall and reticent.  Although neither he nor I exactly saw it, the other boys, African-American and white, insisted that we were dead ringers for each other.  To their eyes my Jewish features and his Latin were more than ample reason to conclude that he was my son and I was his father.  Although neither of us ever acknowledged it, I think we both liked this little joke and the teasing only deepened our bond.  He had come from just about the worst circumstances I’d known of (and I knew some pretty bad beginnings), so when he successfully got his first job working after school I don’t know who was more proud, I or he.

So let’s celebrate Cinco de Mayo by extending the truth in the joke of family to the level where we realize that we truly are all family (even as new battles brew between States on issues of immigration, underscored by not-yet-transcended racism and hypocrisy)—as ours is a country ever working to reconcile ethnic, racial and cultural identity with national, and ultimately global, identity—let’s do it in the service of all our collective children (particularly those who do not yet stand on a level playing field).

Namaste, Bruce


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