Tuesday, May 10, 2011

¡Tequila! ¡Burritos! ¡Sombreros!: Covert Racism of Cinco de Mayo Celebration

(((By Ilene Palacios)))

Before this year I had never celebrated Cinco de Mayo. I am one of those obnoxious Chicanas that wants to preach to everyone the historical and cultural significance of the holiday and how it has been appropriated and in many instances desecrated in the U.S. like St. Patrick’s Day, but at least people kind of know what St. Patrick’s Day is about, blah, blah, blah.

There are a lot of reasons why I usually find myself annoyed beyond belief around this holiday, some of which are addressed in this excerpt from an article in the Seattle Times from last Wednesday, May 4th:

“Unlike Mexico's Independence event [on September 16], May 5 is not a big deal south of the border [i.e. in Mexico], save for the state of Puebla [where the Battle of Puebla this holiday commemorates took place], where festivals and parades are common.
The first Cinco de Mayo celebration was in California in 1863. But the holiday didn't really take off in the United States until the 1960s.
Cinco de Mayo saw a boost in popularity in the 1980s, partly fueled by Mexican beer [such as Corona, which was exported to the U.S. beginning in 1979 – e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P6OAOPG0D4Q] and tequila firms pumping up the event as another St. Patrick's Day, historians say…” (notes added).

The reason that I decided to celebrate this year is that I can deal with that it was appropriated by Mexicans and those of Mexican descent as a sort of fulcrum of heritage and national pride. I understand what the stipulations of the Battle of Puebla were and what the symbolic and practical significance of that battle was, not only for Mexico, but also for the U.S., who Napoleon III’s regime was attempting to dismantle via establishing Mexico as a satellite/puppet government at that time, blah, blah, blah, etc. The above article sought to demystify misconceptions about the holiday as well as its history in the US and lack of celebration in Mexico as compared to in the U.S. – perhaps aiming to enlighten the American people without moralizing.

However, what seemed kind of counterproductive and out of place in the article was the end, a part about drunk driving, which included Spanglish and a form of Mock Spanish.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA] has taken note, coining the slogan "Amigos don't let amigos drive drunk." They also warned in an advertisement: "Drive impaired on Cinco de Mayo and spend seis de Mayo in jail."

While obviously drunk driving is an important issue to address, the manner that the NHTSA chose to address the issue was by ‘playfully’ using Mock Spanish, using Spanish vocabulary words that many non-Spanish speakers would recognize (e.g. “amigo”, “seis”). Whereas it appeared that the article was attempting to enlighten the general American public about the significance or importance of Cinco de Mayo to Mexicans and people of Mexican descent living in the U.S., in this last excerpt Cinco de Mayo (and St. Patrick’s Day) is established as a ‘drinking holiday’ that is at once fun, but potentially dangerous. The author finds nothing wrong or to demystify and enlighten the public about while referencing institutionalized use of Mock Spanish, at least not beyond reminding people to not drink and drink. Instead the author seemingly makes this reference to end the article on a ‘lighter note’.

In the article “Covert Racist Discourse: Metaphors, Mocking, and the Racialization of Historically Spanish-Speaking Populations in the United States” Jane Hill defines Mock Spanish as a form of covert racism, one that is used by Whites in a largely ‘invisible’ or unnoticed yet subsequently common manner (119).

Around Cinco de Mayo I saw and experienced many cases of Mock Spanish. For instance, I got invited to a Cinco de Mayo party on Facebook that used this image as its logo:

In this case Mock Spanish is accompanied by an image that utilizes stereotypes about Mexicans for humorous effect. Sombrero? Check. Boozing? Check. Fun/partying? Check. Big butt/”culata” (does people actually use that term?)? Check. Perhaps needless to say, I did not attend this party. I saw enough people in straw sombreros with drawn on Pancho Villa-style moustaches shaking maracas in my face and saying “Ay yay yay!” just walking down the street and at cafes I went to on the 5th.

Mock Spanish and using actual stereotypical imagery were not the only ways of appropriating. Another way language related to imagery and physical practicing of stereotypes that I saw on was in Facebook statuses in which people discussed the kinds of things and behaviors people were going to indulge in on Cinco de Mayo, for example, "Tequila means never having to say you're sorry for tequila, Chipotle and sombreros".

Perhaps needless to say, I posted an obnoxious comment on this status and on others. No one responded to my comments. I didn’t say sorry.

Both of these examples show the playful nature in which Spanish language and stereotypical images of Mexicans and Mexican culture are used and allegedly practiced on Cinco de Mayo – ironically around a day that is supposedly to celebrate Mexican culture in the U.S. They exemplify the way that practices like Mock Spanish, disseminating stereotypical images about a group of people and partaking in celebrations based on such stereotype on holiday are examples from a set of tactics that Americans use to “appropriate symbolic resources” from not only from the Spanish but also Mexican culture and history, (“Linguistic Appropriation”, Hill,128).

In the most recent Hill reading, the history and implications of use of Mock Spanish in the U.S. are delved into. He writes that its use (as well as other forms of ungrammatical Spanish use) is symbolic and reinforcing of stereotypes about and devaluing of Spanish speaking populations. In the context of Cinco de Mayo use of Mock Spanish and dissemination of stereotypical images/icons of Mexicans (i.e. sombreros, tequila, Corona/Mexican beers, moustaches, etc.) all index a sense of humor and playfulness – because Cinco de Mayo is perceived to be a holiday about fun and partying. It is not taken to be a “serious” holiday about a “serious” event or a “serious” culture. The language, imagery and practices surrounding the holiday exemplify the mentality behind it. Hill notes that the ‘mocking’ part of Mock Spanish and its implications about Spanish-speaking people is what makes it racist.

This is not to say at all, however, that it is only White Americans that partake in this and that some Mexicans do not also partake in these processes as well – but perhaps it is in those cases where the line between being non-White and being American is blurred. Whereas Hill seemed to imply that it was only (or mostly) White Americans and institutions largely run by them who partook in processes of Mock Spanish and stereotyping, in the case of Cinco de Mayo it seemed that any American, even Mexican-Americans, could possibly partake in the tequila, sombrero-wearing drunken revelry.

Ok, I’ve got to go. This evening I’m watching the Kentucky Derby and sipping on a mint julep while wearing a big floppy hat and talk in a bad Southern accent about America and horses, but not about how most jockeys participating in the race are Latino. I think I might go for “Mucho Macho Man”.

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