‘Cultural appropriation’ critics warn about Cinco de Mayo and sombreros

Mini sombrero photo Indie Art South

I’m not surprised by messaging from some quarters about May 5, otherwise known as Cinco de Mayo. Gonzaga University, a place I usually associate with basketball, is warning students about the horrendous act of wearing a sombrero if you’re not Mexican. This holiday wasn’t well known in the US until the last decade or so. In Mexico, it’s not a major holiday either. 

The holiday became popular as immigration to the US increased from our southern neighbors, and as some brands of Mexican beer became more popular. Cinco de Mayo officially marks a win by Mexicans against the French in 1862. The holiday isn’t designated as a federal holiday in Mexico, but it’s become very popular in the US. The battle, according to History.com, wasn’t even “a major strategic win in the overall war against the French…” The battle was noteworthy because the Mexicans were the underdogs and the victory was “symbolic.”

Ironically, one military leader who played a role in the win against the French was born in what became Texas. General Ignacio Zaragoza was born there before Texas became a state in 1845, so technically, he was born in Mexico.

The administrators at Gonzaga, apparently horrified a non-Mexican might wear a sombrero, sent an email to all students suggesting they find “’alternative’ ways of celebrating the holiday.”

This is but one example of “cultural appropriation” critics who apparently have too much time on their hands. A similar fracas arose this week over a teen who chose to wear a certain dress to her prom. In that case, some accused her of appropriating Asian culture.

I think we can stop right there.

How many times did you hear the word “diversity” last week? It’s a favorite buzzword nowadays for political pundits and academics. For most of us down here on lowly Main Street, we practice diversity at work, at church, and at venues for entertainment. American truly is a melting pot—my own family is one gigantic melting pot.

Why would any institution of higher learning attempt not only to squelch freedom of expression but also to put a damper on a fun holiday?

My heritage is a mix, like that of many of my fellow countrymen. One thing I figured out about my ancestors, courtesy of my existing kin, is that we will drop a celebration on you at the slightest opportunity. My husband makes jokes about our love of celebrating. My father’s family has a long traceable line and one thing I have learned about those who came before me—they were very adaptable. I figure I wouldn’t be here if they weren’t, especially since they escaped Europe hundreds of years ago when slavers didn’t just take people of color but instead took any able body. At the same time the US practiced enslaving Africans, North African pirates were enslaving white Europeans.

I’ve often wondered if slavery around the globe in times past didn’t have something to do with the evolution of racial animosity, but I digress.

In America, we’re good at sharing. We share with the world and we share with each other. From braids in your hair to knocking on wood for good luck to weddings, we have melded elements of many cultures into our society. Personally, I think that’s a good thing.

So tomorrow, I’ll lift a glass to Cinco de Mayo (and to the Kentucky Derby). I won’t wear a sombrero, but I’ll give a nod to those Mexicans who fought for one thing—to preserve their country’s sovereignty. It’s too bad Gonzaga upended the First Amendment and actually encouraged tribalism.

It goes without saying that respect should ideally be part of any observance.

It would be interesting to make a list (or video) of how many celebrities have “culturally appropriated” other ethnicities when it comes to dress, celebration, or cuisine. Imagine the fallout on all those culture-appropriating designers.

Almost nothing is more damaging to creativity and the arts than censorship and the sophistry of “cultural appropriation” critics.

By the way, Gonzaga cultural police, you should warn your English professors about the sonnet. Italians did it first.

(Kay B. Day/May 4, 2018)

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