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Sea Mar -Community Health Centers

Social Justice

Why Sea Mar Celebrates Cinco de Mayo:
The Use and Misuse of Cinco de Mayo and Reclaiming the Chicano Past

  • Cinco de Mayo is a culturally misunderstood holiday due to cultural appropriation and companies seeking to profit from the holiday.
  • Locally Cinco de Mayo was celebrated as a way to reclaim Mexican and Chicano history and culture in the 1960’s and 70’s.
  • Throughout Washington Cinco de Mayo has allowed US citizens to maintain a connection to Mexican and Chicano culture, have space to celebrate and join together as well as spark political activism.
  • Understanding Cinco de Mayo as a representation of resistance against white supremacy, race, racism, and colonialism provides a better understanding of this historical event.
  • Cinco de Mayo and its importance provides individuals who are ostracized, oppressed, and exploited a sense of hope

This message is the continuation of dialogues that began with the organization’s message on Black Lives Matter. Periodically or when necessary we will communicate on important events and issues as they arise. It is our goal to be informative, educational, and open on issues affecting our community and society. In the near future messages on topics such as ethnicity, culture, history, diversity and equity will commence in order to open a conversation and move towards a more inclusive world. The focus of this current message is Cinco de Mayo, a celebration that has been a paid Sea Mar holiday since its founding forty-one years ago. Lastly, and as the title suggests the message also addresses the misuse and misconceptions surrounding this historical event.

There is no doubt that in the United States the traditional Mexican celebration known as Cinco de Mayo has become a multi-billion dollar marketing scheme by companies seeking to profit by appropriating cultural heritage and turning a historical celebration into a night of binge drinking with little remaining of its historical significance. As Kenia Diaz (Sea Mar employee) reminded us, people are more apt to recognize this day by the moniker “Cinco de Drinko,” rather than by its historical nomenclature. The commandeering of culture, its dilution, and erasure remains a constant threat to Chicanos/Latinos. Historically, Cinco de Mayo did not suddenly emerge from a marketing ruse by Anheuser-Busch or Coors beer, which dates back to the 1960s. Mexican Americans since 1862 have celebrated Cinco de Mayo for a variety of reasons. Indeed, the hero of the Battle of Puebla, General Ignacio Zaragoza, was born in state of Coahuila next to Texas and many of the soldiers under Zaragoza came from Texas, a U.S. state by this period. The first commemoration of La Batalla de Puebla as a celebration occurred in Texas, not Mexico City or Puebla. In this manner, Cinco de Mayo became a form of resistance early in Chicano history and part of the long arch of El Movimiento (the Chicano Movement).

Perhaps it is best to begin at the local level. As many of us know, Sea Mar’s founders and early employees came out of the Chicano Student Movement from the University of Washington (UW) during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Additionally, students at the UW celebrated Cinco de Mayo because it fell within the academic year, unlike Mexican Independence Day on September 16 allowing them to claim University space for the celebration. In general, one of the many manifestations of the Chicano Movement was to reclaim Mexican and Chicano history, culture and celebrations. Publicly claiming Mexican or Latino culture such as speaking Spanish was discouraged and sometimes banned throughout the twentieth century as part of the national campaigns known as “forced assimilation” and “Americanization.” One of the best-known examples of this was the exclusion of La Virgen de Guadalupe from U.S. churches and relegating the most important religious and cultural icon to the basement of churches or removing her entirely. Well documented in the annals of history, beginning with colonization, settler colonialism, and into the present, Indigenous and Latino culture remain targets for exploitation, marketing schemes, commercialization, and destabilization. This disruption and threat to Chicano and Latino culture is why many remain vigilant and rather than succumb to the misappropriation of these cultures, many choose to resist, and more important, maintain their culture of origin.

Chicanos, like other ethnic groups in the U.S., are U.S. citizens but remain attached to their culture and history of origin, which Cinco de Mayo represents. Chicano students at the UW identified with Cinco de Mayo because it was a long-held celebration practiced in well-established Chicano communities, including many in Washington such as Quincy, Mt. Vernon, the Yakima Valley, and throughout the Puget Sound region. Cinco de Mayo celebrations brought these communities together annually to create a communal space of remembrance. These celebrations or fiestas, reinforced Mexican and Chicano ethnicity and allowed these communities to share bonds of food, music, dance, and cultural heritage while simultaneously reaching broader society. In many ways, fiestas as Cinco de Mayo reaffirmed the importance of community by reinvigorating it and after the celebration, a feeling of rebirth of the community emerged. Yet, celebrating Cinco de Mayo is more than just about culture. Many of the Chicano students from the University of Washington developed an ethnic consciousness accentuated by their political activism. Understanding Cinco de Mayo as a representation of resistance against white supremacy, race, racism, and colonialism provides a better understanding of this historical event. For many and at its core is the idea of reclaiming the Chicano past and the belief in self-determination, an oppositional framework to counter the colonial construct we all live in.

To understand Cinco de Mayo beyond the singular event, it is necessary to grasp its larger meaning and the history that preceded it. Before the French invasion of Mexico in 1862, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and others had for centuries committed atrocities and genocide against Indigenous populations throughout the world (this also includes the United States) that ushered in white supremacy and settler colonialism globally, including the Americas. From its beginning, global white supremacy premised on the idea of the inherent superiority of white Europeans over non-whites, an ideology used to justify the crimes against indigenous and African people that created the United States. For Mexico, invasion, conquest, and attempts at eradicating its culture began not in the nineteenth century by the U.S. or France, but with the invasion and conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521 by Spain. What followed was Spanish dominion over the vast majority of the Western Hemisphere and the advent of European colonization for the next 300 years. After Mexico gained independence in 1821 (Declared 1810) a number of countries circled the young country seeking vulnerabilities to exploit. Its biggest threat came from its northern neighbor the United States.

The United States committed one of its greatest sins with the 1848 U.S. invasion and annexation of fifty-one percent of Mexico’s territory or what today we call the U.S. Southwest and the forced incorporation of our first Latinos, Mexicans. This invasion and conquest, antithetical to the ideals of democracy and freedom, which the United States argued was fundamental to its origins as a republic. For Mexicans and Latinos, this forced incorporation created a population that has remained under the thumb of white supremacy to the very present and an animus directed towards Latinos that has not abated since the nineteenth century. Thus, the defeat of the French military at Puebla on May 5, 1862 was not a single moment frozen in time but echoed into the past and into the present. Mexico, for the very first time on May 5 repelled a foreign invader through a show of national unity, resolve, purpose, and changed the trajectory of Mexican history. Understanding the long arch of this history provides insight why Chicanos and others embraced this celebration as an important benchmark that epitomized what self-determination means. Consequently, Cinco de Mayo and its importance is not an anomaly or inconsequential event, but provides those ostracized, oppressed, and exploited a sense of hope.

The events described provide the basis of why a group of young Chicanos embraced Cinco de Mayo and by doing so, championed the very essence of self-determination, which after all was the basis for the Chicano Movement, the Black Power Movement, the Modern Civil Rights Movement, etc. Self-determination, the process by which a country or person controls its destiny or life, provides additional insight on the lasting impact of history. The founding of Sea Mar Community Health Centers emerged because individuals understood there existed a need for affordable healthcare within the Latino community and were determined to fill it. The creation of the Sea Mar Museum was conceptualized, developed, curated, and launched by a group of Chicanos/Latinos and Sea Mar employees and was based on the vision that Chicanos/Latinos not only left an indelible mark on Washington state history but also helped with its development. These contributions and history remained invisible until the community took action. The United Farmworkers of Washington State understood farm workers remained underpaid and universally disrespected. Groups and individuals were determined to make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. Thus, self-determination, examined through the eyes of marginalized and oppressed groups, resonates beyond the Mexican experience, beyond the Chicano experience, and embraces those seeking the right to determine for themselves the destiny of their lives.

We hope this article provided greater insight to Cinco de Mayo, why Sea Mar celebrates this day, and corrects any misconceptions and misuse regarding the historical event. We also encourage people to reach out for additional clarity, resources on Cinco de Mayo, or to simply dialogue with us. We leave you with this quote from organizers of a Cinco de Mayo celebration in the Pacific Northwest and its significance to their community, “Cinco de Mayo celebrates the struggles of people determined to create their own future, a struggle common to many people of the world.”

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