Commentary: The Truth about Cinco de Mayo

Arwa Gunja, one of the program's producers, explains why she believes Americans should rethink celebrations of Cinco de Mayo.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, often I end the show with a few thoughts of my own, but today I'm going to turn the mic over to our Tell Me More production assistant Arwa Gunja. We were chatting last week about Cinco de Mayo, and let's just say that Arwa had a few choice words for us about this holiday. Well, why don't we just let her tell you. ARWA GUNJA: Today is May 5th. In Spanish, that translates to El Cinco de Mayo. In the U.S., that translates to parties. After-work happy hours, beer buckets full of Dos Equis and half-off Coronas. It's a day when Americans celebrate. What they celebrate, they don't know. What they think they're celebrating is something Mexican, and maybe a few guess it's the independence of Mexico.

When I lived and studied in Mexico, I found out that Cinco de Mayo is really just another day in the calendar for most Mexicans. It marks an important victory against the French, but only has real significance for Pueblanos, those from the Mexican state of Puebla. Mexico's actual independence is September 16th. Cinco de Mayo is just one of the many celebrations we embrace in this country without much thought. It has become commonplace for us to commemorate unfounded events, add traditions of which we can't trace the roots, and misconstrue the historic and religious affiliations behind dates we hold in high regard.

This past Presidents' Day, how many of us spent any time thinking about what leadership really requires? And this coming Memorial Day, will we spend more time barbecuing than thinking about the sacrifice of our service members? Now, when we reinterpret holidays that are our own, we recreate a history that is our own. The only ones who stand to be insulted are ourselves, but when we do so upon another's culture, shouldn't we take a moment to make sure we are honoring the correct event in the correct way?

Can I just tell you, for how much we as Americans have grown accustomed to treating Mexicans in the U.S. as second-class citizens, viewing our neighboring nation as destitute and undeserving, it seems a bit audacious to then celebrate in the name of Mexican heritage and then to do so on the wrong day and in all the wrong ways. It's bad enough we know so little of Mexico, roll our eyes when we hear Spanish on the street, and use Cancun and Baja as our point of personal venues for the worst American adolescents have to offer.

But then, to then celebrate in the name of Mexican spirit and not have any idea what the association is with Mexico and Cinco de Mayo, is just one more representation of how little we value or care about anyone else's culture, including those closest to us.

I applaud having a day to recognize Mexican culture. It is, after all, becoming an increasingly big part of the American tapestry and it seems long overdue that we pay attention to our neighbors. But throwing back a cerveza does not equate with honoring Mexico. Rather, if we took the time to understand why it is we do what we do, maybe it would make more sense to wait until September to acknowledge the real independence of Mexico, along with our Mexican counterparts. Or, at the very least then, maybe more of us could answer correctly when we are asked today why we are heading to Spanish bars after work.

MARTIN: Arwa Gunja is a Tell Me More production assistant. So, Arwa, does that mean you're not coming to my party?

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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