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Don't culturally appropriate Cinco de Mayo or anything else

Truth is: Cinco de mayo is only a cause for celebration because U.S. beer companies made it a holiday. In Mexico, it’s not a big deal.   A Time Magazine article last year provided an overview of the history:

" 'The French army was about four days from Mexico City when they had to go through the town of Puebla, and as it happened, they didn't make it,' " UCLA scholar David E Hayes-Bautista says. The smaller and less-equipped Mexican army held off French troops in the Battle of Puebla, on the fifth of May of 1862. (The French army returned the following year and won, but it was the initial Mexican victory was still impressive.)"

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day. It is, however, an excuse in the U.S. to drink. And a day when many people make the mistake of donning sombreros, colorful ponchos, mustaches, and maracas found abundantly in party-supply stores.

This week at Baylor University in Texas, a fraternity hosted a Cinco de Drinko party where students dressed up as maids and construction workers. It’s not the first time this happens on college campuses.

In 2012, at the University of Chicago, “first-year pledges performed a racial caricature: mowing the lawn in front of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house wearing oversized sombreros while Latin music played from a stereo,” according to the school’s newspaper.

So don’t. Don’t take someone else’s culture and make it your own to celebrate or laugh or look cool.

Last week, a friend, colleague, and artist Gabriel Mejia asked a question on Facebook about wearing a Negro Baseball League cap.

A few people responded. Some said it’s not cultural appropriation; others said, “Yes it is.” I agreed.

It’s an item that’s carries historical significance in a racially charged context. It was a symbol of people being excluded because of the color of their skin. The league is not around anymore; it’s not like a Cubs or Sox hat. What might a Negro League baseball player say to a white hipster if he saw him wearing it?

A few years ago, I was swimming at the University of Chicago’s pool and saw a fellow with a huge tattoo on his back. It was Our Lady of Guadalupe. Maybe he was Mexican and a believer in the image. He was blond. Of course, Mexicans, Latinos, come in all shades. But it made me wonder—especially because I am a Guadalupano, a believer in that religious image and history. I almost asked, “Hey, what’s up with that tattoo?”

But I thought the conversation might turn ugly if he gave a cavalier explanation. So I let it go.

Conversations matter. Conversations are needed. It's difficult, though, to do this with strangers.

Another time, I bought a pair of dog tags at a Chicago museum. On them, I had a quote about poetry engraved. The day I was going to wear them, I donned a t-shirt and I put the chain and dog tags over my neck. I looked in the mirror. I couldn’t. I didn’t want to put myself in a situation where a veteran could ask me, “Did you serve?” I took them off; I’ve never worn them.

That’s how I determine cultural appropriation—if wearing a cultural object requires you to explain why you're wearing it to someone from that culture, don’t wear it.

If I see a hipster wearing a guayabera today, for example, will I throw him some shade? Probably not. It’s a shirt. It’s meant to me worn.

But I still won’t say, "¡Salud!" because hipsters to me mean gentrification and displacement. I’m generalizing, but it’s what happens when they move in.  They culturally appropriate neighborhoods.

When we take an item out of context and claim it as our own with humorous intentions or without understanding its cultural significance, we disrespect someone’s history.

303 Magazine ran an article by Symone Roque that explains how not to culturally appropriate Cinco de Mayo.

And if you still don’t get it, then don’t celebrate by shaking maracas at a bar on Cinco de Mayo.

I, like many other people of Mexican descent, won’t be celebrating.

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