Reflections on Cinco Circa 2012 – Our “Labyrinth of Solitude”


by Marcela Davison Aviles

Cinco de Mayo Stamp2012 is an important year, and not just because of the summer Olympics, Fall elections, or Mayan predictions of doom. 2012 is also the 150th anniversary of Cinco de Mayo and the American Civil War. Not many realize these two seminal events are linked together – yesterday and today.

The citizens of Alta California created the Cinco de Mayo celebrations during the 1860s. Learning that the Mexican army in Puebla had defeated invading French troops on May 5, 1862, Latinos in California were overjoyed that freedom and democracy had won a victory over forces of slavery and oligarchy. These Californios rejoiced and celebrated with fireworks, patriotic songs, and impromptu speeches. Dr. David Hayes-Bautista, the acknowledged expert on the history of this holiday, has stated, “Cinco de Mayo is important toCalifornia because it was invented here.”

This Californio invention became the nation’s first Cinco de Mayo celebrations and the sustained oratory accompanying the “freedom dances” served as a rallying cry for the territory’s rejection of slavery, and its entry into the Union as afree state. The “Southern Strategy” during the Civil War to spread slavery west was halted, in part, by a fiesta.

One hundred and fifty years hence, what shall we latter day Californios celebrate? Today, is Cinco de Mayo more about finding the best fiesta than acknowledging the freedoms won at Puebla and Gettysberg? US Latinos have achieved much – contributed blood, sweat and tears to the building of our American Dream. And yet, there is also a sense of “going back to the future.” To paraphrase the great Mexican poet Octavio Paz, we seem to be living in a paradox of patriotic inequality.

U.S. Latino heritage is characterized by displacement from our own lands, while we seek to become part of the American Dream. This feeling is not new – and it is complex – because the feeling of displacement encompasses generations of resentment over colonial colonization, the displacement of Californio citizens and seizure of property as a result of the Mexican American war and California statehood, and modern civil rights battles over racial discrimination and unfair treatment in housing, education and the workforce. More recently, the anti-immigration legislation movement has resulted in the de-facto criminalization of Mexican-American studies and heritage programs in Arizona and the introduction of similar legislation in California. In Alabama, most of the Latino immigrant community has left rather than be subjected to that state’s anti-Latino laws. Copycat legislation has been introduced in several other states. Since the tragic events of 9/11, demonization of Latino immigrants has continued unabated. Indeed it is now the subject of too many books and articles (“The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens and the Nation”, by Professor Leo Chavez, is an excellent example).

In communities such as San Jose, California, non-profit organizations and City agencies are faced daily with the local impact of several years of economic crisis. The report card published by the Hispanic Foundation of the Silicon Valley reveals there is much work to be done to ensure our youth succeed in school. Local school boards and districts are working hard to find solutions to this achievement gap. Culturally relevant education programs, and bi-lingual immersion curriculum such as that found atSan Jose’s Adelante Dual Language Academy, are succeeding. Culturally relevant music education such as the curriculum-based mariachi education program in the San Jose Unified School District for years has delivered an academic environment where student attendance is higher than average, student morale is full of pride and a sense of achievement and student academic performance is tied to clearly stated expectations.

Today, the need from our community reflects hard economic times – in all areas – health, education, housing, employment. Government budgets are the lowest in decades, and assistance from the philanthropy sector reflects the disturbing reality of a lack of national philanthropic support for Latino non-profits. Out of the billions donated to charitable causes each year in the US, Latino and other diverse non-profits receive less than 5% of available funds – to serve a national population that represents the majority of the nation’s population.

It all seems too overwhelming – and yet—the Cinco de Mayo of our heritage provides inspiration. Then a poorly equipped army of 4000 Mexicans defeated French forces numbering 8000 strong. The victory resonated north, where a young territory planted its commitment to social justice firmly in the ground and denied slavery’s path.  Then, the authentic voice of the Latino community was heard loud and clear. Today, the numbers are in our favor. We might hear a new echo of our victory in 1862, if we set down the margarita glass, and pick up a voter registration card.

Marcela Davison Aviles is an author, lawyer and CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corporation and Executive Producer of VivaFest, a leading Latino cultural festival of Latino music, theatre, education, film, new media and the visual arts.