GUEST COLUMN: A conversation is needed after Cinco de Mayo ‘celebration’ by Princeton High School Students
Everyone living in Princeton should be consciously aware of the fact that our community is very much a part of the culture and system that perpetuates discrimination, racism, and overall, white supremacy.
Many of us would like to believe that we are not a part of this problem. We see ourselves as someone who can be a part of the solution, or as someone who generally does not influence either side. We give ourselves a pat on the back for reading the news, posting a few social media rants on the current hot-button issue, or for walking in a few protests or marches, because nothing says “woke” like a cis straight white girl taking a dozen photos with pride flags proceeding then to plaster it all over social media. Nothing says “woke” like a cis straight white girl proclaiming to be a feminist and an ally, when in actuality the only issues ever cared about only affect cis straight white women. Nothing says “woke” like proclaiming to be racially literate, and then proceeding to participate actively or be a bystander to a party revolving around cultural appropriation.
As Cinco de Mayo arrives each year, I mentally prepare myself for the “Drinko de Mayo” parties hosted and attended mostly by white people, white people being patrons to not-so-authentic chain “Mexican” restaurants, pictures of white people in stereotypical Mexican costumes, and all of it being proudly displayed over various social media platforms. I have yet to be disappointed every year by the amount of white people who “celebrate” Cinco de Mayo for me in a disrespectful and inappropriate manner. The worst part is that it seems to grow every year.
Unless you live in Puebla, the town where the battle occurred, not many people celebrate Cinco de Mayo in Mexico. However, if you are going to celebrate, there are ways to do so in a respectful manner. A few great ways of doing so are supporting local Mexican businesses, getting involved and volunteering at local organizations to help immigrants, donating to said organizations, or becoming culturally literate on what Cinco de Mayo really is about.
In Mexico, “ Cinco de Mayo” celebrates the 1862 defeat of the powerful invading French army by an ill-equipped Mexican army, consisting of a mix of soldiers and peasants. Due to its historical importance, not just for Mexico but also for the United States, in 2005, the 109th U.S. Congress issued Resolution 44 to recognize “ Cinco de Mayo ” as a national celebration. H.Con.Res.44 concludes: “Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), that Congress recognizes the historical struggle for independence and freedom of the Mexican people and requests the President to issue a proclamation recognizing that struggle and calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
The resolution also issues a reminder: “ . . . Cinco de Mayo serves as a reminder that the foundation of the United States is built by people from many nations and diverse cultures who are willing to fight and die for freedom.” In the United States, Cinco de Mayo is then a celebration of Mexican American identity and culture linked by deep historical roots in the quest of freedom in both countries.
This year, a group of Princeton High School seniors and juniors threw a “Cinco de Mayo”-themed party. There were fake mustaches, sombreros, and chili pepper necklaces passed around for photo opportunities. This “celebration” of Cinco de Mayo not only is an example of cultural appropriation, but an example of how the Mexican-American identity and community is hurt through harmful stereotypes or shows of disrespect.
Many of these students are recognized as leaders by the school, some of the students being teen-pep and peer group leaders. One of the students involved in the party was even given the Senior Superlative of “social justice warrior.” To my knowledge, there was a discussion prior to the students moving forward with the theme, on whether or not the theme would hurt anyone or come off as questionable. After this alleged discussion, the students proceeded to move forward with the party, being
fully aware that they could hurt people. I felt that the same students, white and of color, who sat in my Latin American class, my history classes, and my school, decided to take an entire country, its people, and its beautiful culture, and turn it into a funny-looking costume. I felt that the same students who knew better, turned my heritage into a costume for their entertainment. I felt that the same students who claim to be socially aware or politically correct turned me into a costume.
Within the days that followed, three other Hispanic girls and I contacted the administration to see what could be done. Our goal, to educate, not to punish. We came up with the idea of having the students involved come into school with at least one parent to sit down and participate in a racial literacy class or lesson on the negative impact of cultural appropriation. This way not only the student is educated, but so is the parent that raised them. In no way did we want to get these students in trouble for underage drinking or anything else, all we wanted to do was to show them and others why their actions had been unacceptable. We told the school about how the incident had affected us, why it was wrong, and why the school needed to take action and educate its students. We were met with a mixed response.
The school has done a great job on keeping us updated on its progress, and has given us the platform for us to voice what we felt needed to be done. They decided to meet with parents and students one-on-one, throughout the following week. An idea that came from the school as a way to introduce the problems with cultural appropriation to students was to mention it at the pre-prom meetings. We were also given the opportunity to help fill up a time block on the senior day in hopes of reaching the entire senior class.
While all of this sounds great, in practice it wasn’t as impressive. Later during that week, a conversation was overheard between some of the students involved in the incident. During the conversation, some students mentioned that their parents were not interested in attending these meetings with the school. Keep in mind that some of these parents are seen as influential or established members of our community. So when the time came to go to their meetings, these students simply told the administration that their parents could not make it, and where met with a cavalier “Oh, don’t worry about it!”
When mentioning cultural appropriation in the pre-prom meetings, I heard from a peer that it was touched upon for two seconds as a part of the choices we make regarding social media. I personally heard no mention of “cultural appropriation” during my pre-prom meeting.
During our meeting with the administration, we were met with comments concerning how the school did not want to make the students involved in the incident feel shame. The best way to prevent the shame the school brought up was to keep all of this under wraps. Because celebrating a people’s holiday while disrespecting the people whom it belongs to apparently warrants no shame.
Telling others what happened and why it was wrong is a vital part of educating the greater community. Hiding the school response allows for these students to get away with all of it, as they have for the past 12 years of their schooling. Every time I would hear jokes about a Hispanic student leaving a classroom to “go back across the border”, or every time I would see students giving dirty looks to the ESL students in the back of the room, or every time I would hear a comment directed either at me or at a Hispanic peer regarding the occupation of our parents, and if they enjoyed cleaning their houses and taking care of their lawns, they were never held accountable by the school or the community. While small things like that may not seem to have a great effect, in actuality, microaggressions build up and breed the space which allows for blatant racism and discrimination to exist and persist.
Time and time again incidents like this happen, and will continue to happen. It’s not surprising. When one incident or issue pops up, the administration or the community quickly works to patch it up in order to appease those who wish to speak out. But that’s just it. We put a patch or a band-aid over it. Rather than work actively to try and prevent incidents through education, such as this one from occurring, we as a community wait and react to difficult situations often in a problematic way.
We need to embrace a more effective attitude to deal with these types of situations. Instead of ostracizing or not listening to the “guilty” or “controversial” party, it is time that we allow for both sides to be heard. A healthy dialogue could help for both sides to see each other’s points, and hopefully for either side to embrace their shortcomings or wrongdoings. It is time for our community to take responsibility and move forward together.
Valeria Torres-Olivares ’18
Princeton High School