Put down the sombrero and back away slowly.
Today is Cinco de Mayo, one of the most widely celebrated Mexican holidays in the United States. But all the taco eating and $5 margaritas can cloud what you’re actually celebrating — and lead to some nasty cultural appropriation.
That sombrero you’re wearing, for instance, is never appropriate, unless you’re of Mexican heritage.
But cultural appropriation is more than just a cheap, straw imitation of the wide-brimmed hat. It’s parodying a culture without knowledge or respect of its roots. Many non-Mexicans are guilty of this on May 5, knocking back margaritas but totally oblivious to what they’re even celebrating.
“In Mexican culture the sombrero, ‘ponchos,’ the music, the dancing, and even the tequila that was first made by the Aztecs have several cultural struggles behind them that a lot of people don’t understand,” Melissa Nuno wrote on Medium earlier this year. “It can be offensive to some when people from other cultures try to own it, especially without at least trying to understand what it means to the people of that culture.”
If you’re thinking May 5 is Mexican Independence Day, you couldn’t be further from the truth. You have to hold on until Sept. 16 for that.
Cinco de Mayo marks the Mexican Army’s unlikely victory over French forces in Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The French had an estimated 6,000 troops at the time of the battle, and was widely considered “the premiere army in the world.” The Mexican army only had about 2,000 troops, but they defeated the French in the battle in the state of Puebla.
However, it wasn’t a major strategic victory in the overall war. But the unexpected victory was a morale boost for the Mexican army, and upped support of the resistance movement for Mexican citizens.
The battle was also seen as a victory over colonialism, especially since white men had been trying invade Mexican land for decades. Many of the troops fighting on behalf of Mexico were of Indigenous background, giving special importance to the win over a white, highly-trained army.
Now, the holiday is virtually ignored in Mexico. Only the United States has carried on the tradition of Cinco de Mayo, making it a day to stagger into bars and taquerias — and not much else.
That’s why the way Americans celebrate the holiday is such a problem. On Cinco de Mayo, non-Mexican Americans pick and choose portions of Mexican culture to enjoy. In doing this, they miss the struggle — historical and current — of Mexican citizens and immigrant populations, shaping Mexican heritage into something they think is more appealing and that is, ultimately, inauthentic.
It’s colonization of culture — a whitewashed, watered-down version of true heritage.
“It is important to the Mexican community to no longer be treated as a caricature,” Kim Silva, a Mexican early childhood educator, told Colorlines this week. “If the ways that the Mexican community is impacted regarding education, immigration, and employment had the same amount of spotlight as ‘Cinco de Drinko,’ it could truly make a difference.”
Especially in the age of President Donald Trump, appropriation of Mexican culture has an unavoidable sting. Trump has repeatedly called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “criminals.” He has threatened to build a “big, beautiful wall” to prevent undocumented immigration of Mexican citizens. And he has recently started deporting undocumented immigrants — many of whom have built lives in the U.S. for decades — back to Mexico.
“My concern lives squarely with the people who use Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to appropriate a culture or define it by harmful stereotypes,” Ella Cerón wrote for Teen Vogue. “And yes, Donald Trump is included in this group of people. Really, that should be enough for you: Do you want to belong to a club that would let Donald Trump be a member?”
So take off the sugar skull face paint (that’s for Día de los Muertos, anyway) and stop trying to stumble through the Spanish language after too many tequila shots. And, for crying out loud, stop saying “Cinco de Drinko.”
There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with eating enchiladas and downing some drinks on May 5 — especially if you’re at a Mexican-owned restaurant. But unless you’re truly marking the Battle of Puebla, best call it another Friday and not a meaningful celebration of Cinco de Mayo.