I know Cinco de Mayo is approaching when sombreros are being sold on campus, when supermarkets begin to dress their aisles in sarapes and when themed parties begin to overflow the streets of Isla Vista. On the surface, these things may appear to be a celebration of Mexican culture and lifestyle, bringing students together over a handle of Jose Cuervo. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating a culture or holiday when it’s a form of appreciation, where do we draw the line when each and every year UCSB and society-at-large trademarks Cinco de Mayo with sarapes, sombreros and tequila shots?
A symbol typically associated with Cinco de Mayo is the sombrero, which comes from the Spanish word sombra, or shade. Originators of the sombrero were Mestizo workers — people of mixed Latin, European and Native American descent who worked in Mexico and the Southern United States. Sombreros are a symbol of hard work for people who had to work in the fields. It is a symbol of perseverance, struggle and survival. It has no relation to Cinco de Mayo. Along with the sombrero, the phrase “Cinco de Drinko” is another form of appropriation that perpetuates the stereotype of a drunk Mexican that not only appropriates a language, but also reduces a large population of self-respecting people into alcoholics.
Cultural appropriation is the adoption of icons, rituals, etc. from one culture or subculture by another. Appropriation occurs without any real understanding of why the original culture took part in these activities or the meanings behind these activities. This often results in the conversion of culturally significant artifacts, practices and beliefs, into “meaningless” (and irrelevant) pop culture, or giving them significance that is completely different than what they originally had.
Within its historical context, Cinco de Mayo marks the victory of a battle won in the city of Puebla against the French army. It is commemorated and celebrated locally, but it is not recognized as a national Mexican holiday. Contrary to what many people have heard, Cinco de Mayo is NOT Mexico’s Independence Day — Sept. 16 is.
UCSB, be critical of what Cinco de Mayo really is: One day a year when people wear sombreros, mustaches, throw back tequila and have fun being “Mexican.” Some live the reality 365 days a year for their entire lives without the sombreros or mustaches. Don’t appropriate a culture that struggles to even be here in the States. It’s interesting that during this time people choose to be “Mexican,” but I highly doubt anyone would trade the life of a real Campesino, one working the field, wearing that infamous sombrero.
This letter was co-written by Ariana Rodriguez (La Familia de Colores), Megan Foronda (A.S. Office of the President), Mario Vasquez (Human Rights Board), Norma Orozco (I.D.E.A.S.) and Navkiran Kaur (S.C.O.R.E.).
A version of this letter appeared on page 8 of the May 7, 2013 print edition of the Nexus.
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