This past Thursday was a day I’m sure many college students are well acquainted with—Cinco de Mayo. It is a day known by Americans for going out to indulge in tacos and order your favorite margarita. Growing up, most American children might learn a little bit about Cinco de Mayo. However, this pivotal day has no ties to America and, in fact, it is a “quiet holiday” in many parts of Mexico itself, according to UMass Boston Professor Amy Todd. Professor Todd teaches a class called “The People and Culture of Mesoamerica” in the anthropology department, and it’s a course I highly recommend. I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Todd about the history of Cinco de Mayo and its popular presence in America.
It is important to, at the very least, understand this Mexican holiday before you go out and celebrate it. “Cinco de Mayo marks the day that Mexico defeated France in the First Battle of Puebla in 1862,” says Professor Todd. “Unfortunately, the French defeated the Mexicans at the Second Battle of Puebla, and ended up occupying Mexico until 1867. Eventually, the holiday became a celebration of Mexican pride.” The term “cultural appropriation” is often brought up when discussing Cinco de Mayo, and if you ask around for people’s opinions on whether or not they think that, as an American, celebrating Cinco de Mayo is cultural appropriation, you are sure to get an array of answers. When asked about this view of the holiday, Professor Todd said, “[Cinco de Mayo] has been turned into another highly commercial day and, yes, another excuse to party. Celebrating Cinco de Mayo is not necessarily cultural appropriation, but when non-Mexican businesses use imagery from Mexico to sell their products, it is.” She goes on to warn that “we should always be concerned about how such images perpetuate negative attitudes towards Mexico.”
As for the students at UMass Boston, Professor Todd urges us to “not only learn the history of Cinco de Mayo, but to commit to gaining a deeper understanding of Mexico’s indigenous history, Spanish colonial history and history as an independent nation.” She says she would like students to “understand that much of our country was once Mexico, acquired through a violent and unjust war that is remembered vividly in Mexico but forgotten here." The gist of the story is, if you’re going to celebrate Cinco de Mayo here in America, you should become educated on the topic; I encourage any reader to give their business to Mexican-American owned restaurants, small businesses, shops, etc., not only on Cinco de Mayo, but in general. We should make a point to be respectful and knowledgeable on the Battle of Puebla, and the history following it. While Mexico dedicates May 5 to be a day of celebrating their initial victory against the French, keep in mind that the French won the war overall and occupied Mexico until 1867. Mexico has a society with a rich and deeply interesting history, much of which we were a part of, for better or for worse, and if we are allowing ourselves to go out and party on Cinco de Mayo, we also need to make a point to get to know Mexico and their culture, to resist the cushion of ignorance and learn all that we can about our neighbors to the south.