Monday, May 05, 2008

Cinco de Mayo and American Cultural Celebrations

Thinking about Cinco de Mayo. On the one hand, in these days of vilification of Mexicans, surely it is a good thing to have a mainstream celebration of Mexican culture. It must be helpful to have time set aside to create a positive association with all things Mexican, if nothing else, to serve as a counter-balance to the soft racism of Lou Dobbs, where making immigrants who are just looking to feed their families into national enemies fans the flames of the pre-existing subcurrent of anti-Mexican bigotry much in the same way that Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" rhetoric poured gasoline on racial tensions in the country.

It is interesting to see the changes over time in the definition of whiteness. When I was doing the research for "The Greening of White Pride, " a paper I co-wrote that examined the foundations of the environmental ethic of contemporary white pride groups, it was interesting to see in various racist circles how big or small the circle of whiteness was drawn. For example, in some groups, but not others, Italians were excluded. It really is strange to realize that it is just a couple of generations since Italian food was thought of as exotic cuisine. Surely, the normalization of food is one way that a subculture gets folded into the general society and food and drink are central to celebrations like Cinco de Mayo.

At the same time, this route does result in a one-dimensional image of the culture in which certain party-friendly aspects are picked out and played up in caricature. What gets assimilated isn't the culture itself, but an Americanized cartoon of it. We create mere icons that strip the real culture of its interesting and complex qualities, its multi-faceted truly human nature. Think of the way Irishness is reflected in our celebration of St. Patrick's Day.

The question then is whether we are celebrating the culture and thereby beginning to welcome it into the broader culture or whether it is merely a sterilized creation of our own that traps members of the group in a fake box designed to neuter the cultural influences and allow for our easy consumption.