This week is Cinco de Mayo. It’s a Mexican National Holiday – May 5th -- that we probably ought to get used to.
In recent years, more and more Americans have started observing the occasion with Cinco de Mayo parties, as an opportunity to celebrate Mexican culture. (“Celebrating Mexican culture” is really just another way of saying “drinking tequila”.)
Growing up in the Midlands of South Carolina in the 1960’s, I was not exposed to very much Hispanic tradition. Most of what I knew about Mexico was what I had gleaned from my visits to “South of the Border” in Dillon County on I-95. (Years later, I was taken aback to learn that the convenience stores in Mexico are NOT lined with wall-to-wall video poker machines.)
In high school, circa 1970, when I was mandated by state law to study a foreign language, I was given a choice between Spanish or French. I wanted to choose the one which would be most useful in my later life, so naturally I chose French. What possible use would I ever have for Spanish? Where was I more likely to travel? Paris or El Burrito?
Then, in the early 80’s, when the Shealy family was flown to Los Angeles to appear on the show “Family Feud” – true story, we’ll get to it another time – we were asked the now famous “Mexican food” question. Richard Dawson, the shows host, announces: “One hundred Americans surveyed, top five answers on the board… Name your favorite Mexican food!”
Blank stares from the Shealy family. It was the early 80’s, before the Age of Taco Bell, and we were from Lexington County, in the middle of the Deep South, home of grits, fatback, and collard greens. We were having trouble thinking of ONE Mexican food, let alone five!
Over the years, I’ve tried to gain a better understanding of our neighbors to the south. I like some of their traditions, especially the one about taking a nap in the middle of every afternoon: the siesta! Now that’s a tradition I could learn to love, especially at my age. Granted, the hour out of the workday probably hasn’t been the greatest stimulus for their national economy… gross national product, gross domestic product, etc. But pesos aren’t everything, right? I vote for the nap.
Now, the “worm-in-the-beer” tradition… I’m not so sure about that one. (You have to drink some pretty nasty beer to get to that worm!)
Until recently, I always thought Cinco de Mayo was Mexican Independence Day. Not so. May 5th commemorate the day in the 1860’s the Mexicans beat the French! Frankly, I think it’s an awful lot of hoopla to celebrate beating an army of chefs and artists. The Girl Scouts could beat the French.
The actual Mexican Independence Day is later in the year, September 16th. We Americans celebrate that time of the year, but we call it a different name: Football Season!
Since we don’t really pay attention to Mexico in September, I’ll continue to think of Cinco de Mayo as their national celebration.
All of which brings me to the issue that seems to be weighing heavy on the American consciousness these days: Illegal Immigration.
Why are all those Mexicans coming here?
Why do the leave a homeland where they can take a nap every afternoon, to come pick our produce, wash our dishes, roof our houses, and dig our ditches? Why are they leaving their families and risking their lives for the tablescraps from the American feast of opportunity?
They’re willing to overcome many obstacles and hardships -- even imprisonment – for a taste at our free enterprise system. They’re breaking our laws to be here.
Some people see it as evidence that they are somehow substandard. I see it as evidence that they are endowed with the same human spirit which drives us all toward freedom.
I know I should be angrier that these illegal immigrants seem to find ways to stay here in spite of our laws… but I guess I’m just grateful that I’m lucky enough to have been born here.
In observance of Mexico’s May 5th, I’ll be celebrating America’s July 4th.