Casual Cultural Consumption

Personal / Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

I am Latina. I’m half Dominican. I’m not Mexican, but every year I bristle a bit at Cinco de Mayo. Mostly at white people, the other half of my biracial identity.

When it comes to events like this…it leaves me feeling mixed.

I’m not Mexican, but I also feel for them in our collective identity as Latinos, and as people a lot of Americans including our president isn’t a big fan of. So, I speak as more of an outside observer with an invested interest in dissecting and understanding these things.

That’s also acknowledging my fully white-passing face, which doesn’t even hint that I might be mixed. I cannot deny that that’s given me a lot of privileges in my life that even my own brother (who looks 100% Latino) never benefited from. Being biracial has definitely given me a point of view I’m grateful for. While I had some of your typical one foot in each group moments, and a lot of side eyes from people, none of that affected me as bad as I imagine some with similar backgrounds may have dealt with.

Growing up, there were (and still are not) many Dominican characters for me. Most of them were Mexican, and the closest we’d get were some Puerto Ricans, and only more recently am I seeing more Afro-Latino characters. For me, it’s knowing that Pixar’s Coco and Jorge Gutierrez’s Book of Life are the closest things I have to seeing my family on screen. Though, I do remember how excited I was when Miles Morales was first announced, and how happy I was to see him in Spider-Man: Into the SpiderVerse. Miles, for the record is half black, half Puerto Rican. I remember when In the Heights came out and it had probably the first fictional Dominican I was aware of.

I’d read many of Julia Alvarez’s novels growing up…How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Before We Were Free, and I knew she was of Dominican decent, but I think in my kind-brain those read more like nonfiction vs characters in stories set in fantastical worlds I wanted to inhabit. Her books were about people who felt real. Not saying that in a bad way at all of course. I’m overdue for a re-read on ALL her stuff.

I think I’ve always been more protective of Mexican culture because it’s the more prominant one in America, and like I implied earlier, we all kind of get lumped together. Because it’s at the forfront, it’s also had the most time to become caricatured, warped, disrespected in media for a very long time. I can easily look back through film history and find racist depictions of Mexicans and Chinese people for example, but I’d probably have to dig a little to find a Dominican character in an American film from the ’60s.

I could be wrong of course, a lot of this is my own unfiltered thoughts.

This started because I posted a message on my Instagram Story this morning and then took it down.

I posted something along the lines of:

“If you don’t actually know what Cinco de Mayo is, or think it’s Mexican Independence Day, then you need to think about why it is you’re celebrating this. I’m all for celebrating Latino cultures, but think about the intent behind it. Our culture isn’t an excuse for your alcohol consumption.”

I was thinking about the racist Halloween costumes I’ve seen over the years. I remember asking someone about one in my freshman year of college once (they wore a sombrero, a fake mustache, jeans with grass stains, a white t-shirt with grass stains and the words “Dirty Mexican” written across the chest in sharpie, I fucking kid you not) and the student was Mexican.

I feel like at that point, the conversations about the some times subtle differences between cultural appropriation and appreciation were not as out in the open. They were still largely behind academic doors or spaces online that were not as accessible as social media (which largely didn’t exist then) made so. But this was pretty blatantly racist. And I felt like I couldn’t say shit because the person in question was part of the affected group.

Today, I have the language that could have helped me navigate that conversation better. I’m sure both then and now he would not want to hear me theorize about his own internalized racism.

Cinco de Mayo is a little different than that. People who celebrate it operate on scale where not every person who celebrates it is by default racist. There are some people who go out and take advantage of sales and specials and get Mexican food. Ideally it’s at a family-owned place, but just as likely a chain like On the Border or Chipotle. People will have a margarita because they apparently need external excuses for things. We’re all guilty of that. I used Star Wars Day as an excuse to post photos from my pre-pandemic trip to Disney World.

Obviously those pale in comparison to the one time I was accidentally in Manhattan on Cinco de Mayo and had to dodge slews of drunk people. Honestly, my three worst days in NYC were all due to drunk masses: the Giant’s Superbowl victory parade, St. Patrick’s Day (another drunken cultural clusterfuck), and Cinco de Mayo. I’ve been lucky to have never been there for any major holidays (i.e. New Years) and have also managed to dodge Santa Con. None of the other cultural holidays create this level of unsafeness, and I think it’s because they are lead by the leaders of said communities and are family events. The Puerto Rican day parade is always fun, I’ve stumbled onto the Persian Parade, the Dominican Day Parade, Italian one (can’t remember if it was the problematically named Columbus Day Parade and Feast of San Gennaro) and an Egyptian one I cannot remember.

Cinco de Mayo festivities are not organized by a cultural group, there’s no cultural celebration or educational moment. It’s just an excuse to go out to a bar. It feels like people who go out and places that celebrate clutch the four things they associate with Mexican culture, being sombreros, serapes, maracas, mustaches, and cacti and paper streamers.

But also I’d love to see people people get up and dance and celebrate Mexican culture. To try dishes beyond your Tex-Mex standards.

When I was in Mexico last fall for Pixelatl (an animation festival/event), I was met with that enthusiasm. I was only ever invited to partake and share and learn and meet people as people. We had a slight overlap again in our broader ethnicity, but still, Dominican culture and Mexican are distant cousins, not sisters. It was that appreciation and respect that let us have some amazing, fun nights, even with the mezcal flowing. (I don’t drink lol but everyone else (there were people from all over the world) sure does.)

And this is a problem I see across the media landscape in general. How do you simplify a culture enough so it’s accessible to a global audience but still unique. We are finally seeing more stories being told or lead in some way (head of story, co-director, etc.) who have the actual backgrounds we’re depicting. What a concept! It’s not to say others can’t tell stories of characters they don’t identify with, but it’s also about time I get to see more people getting those opportunities vs seeing these stories filtered through the same broad perspective (middle aged white man).

(Damn, she hates white dudes! No, I just want to see a broader range of creators have the same opportunities. For too long the people who have created the things that shape our culture have come this one demographic, and I want to see more variation.)

I was just recently talking with a friend about a new show on Netflix called Never Have I Ever, which is about an Indian-American family (centered on the daughter, a high school sophomore). We were talking about how there’s so many different wants to depict not only Indian culture, but Indian-American culture. Everyone has different experiences, so it’s never going to tell the whole story with just one depiction–which is why it’s so important that we don’t celebrate our one YA show about an Indian girl and then we don’t get a second one for 20 years. We have so many shows and films about white American boys coming of age that we get a nice broad palette of stories and backgrounds. There’s not one to pull from. There are still tropes of course, but they aren’t as prevalent as ones we see in certain cultures.

Even for me, I grew up in a very diverse town, but there were not many other Latino families around us. I didn’t have that neighborhood/barrio experience I see in films. For my family, it felt like there was a mixed relationship with that part of our family, due to the circumstances that lead my family to leaving to America, and the experiences they had while that process was ongoing.

Jen, I just want a margarita and a fucking taco.

Fine, just don’t be an asshole about it. That’s it.

There’s the bar. You can step over it.

I think for me, I just want people to search their feelings a tiny bit more. To consider the intent behind their actions.

Everyone wants their culture appreciated and celebrated, or at least just not shit on. We just want the things that make us human recognized and respected by others in small was.

I’m not trying to shit on you for ordering curbside pickup for a taco special today or making margaritas at home, and I think that’s partly why I took the post down. Those aren’t inherently microaggressions and I didn’t want it to come off that way. Those things can certainly lead to microaggressions…and then just straight up aggressions and I fear normalizing things as being a way to reinforce implicit biases. Not exactly a conversation I can fit on like thirteen lines of text. It’s the same thing as asking why a comedian’s racist joke made you laugh, or why it made someone else laugh.

No one is perfect. I’m still learning, and I can only speak to so much of this as one person with my particular background.

I just wanted to get this out this morning.

Also: Today, my husband’s yoga instructor, a white woman who very much tries to invoke the spiritual side of yoga and says a lot of stuff in Hindi, literally ended the virtual session today with a “Happy Cinco de Mayo! Yay tacos and tequila!” And I died. Here we have a white woman trying to embody and respect this one culture just mindlessly throwing that out. But also, again, sure, get your taco. Viva Mexico. Honestly. Viva Mexico.

I just get cultural whiplash, which this whole thing was meant to explain, and then that happened. It was just so face-palmingly funny.

Someone who I’m a fan of in the animation world (who I mentioned earlier, always has a great attitude about this type of stuff:

The gif he attached is a little….well, it’s a choice lol.

“More than anything it is for pride. I consider the day a celebration of Mexico in the US rather than a Mexican holiday. And more than anything for the Mexican-American community. And the Mexicans who are upset I think they are wasting their time. It’s like crying in the rain. Better to celebrate!”

The person he’s conversing with does also go on to point out how beer companies and restaurant industry seem to have targeted dates like this and St. Patrick’s Day more for capitalistic gains than culture. There will always be people channeling Jorge’s enthusiasm, and people who feel it’s misplaced. Again, the line between appreciation and appropriation can be non-existent at times when you really look at the origins of a lot of things. So much of culture is because of a mix of the two.

At the end of the day, I’m not Mexican nor Mexican-American, and I’m happy to see conversations happening with people from both of those groups, and other groups. These are the people who it affects the most. I recognize that, while recognizing our cultures get lumped together enough that I care more than some people might want me too.

You can tell me to stay in my lane, that I’m making a big deal about nothing, that no one cares, that “PC culture” is killing the world, you can agree with everything I’m saying, none of it, some of it. It’s still something I’m going to take time to learn about and understand more and make mistakes with.

And again, for me, it’s just being aware that the conversation can be simple at times, but it can also be quite complex. It comes down to the intent of your choices, as with anything really. You can still celebrate, for the umpteenth time. Just take a second to learn what it is, and also consider celebrating with your local mom-and-pop taqueria.

The photo was taken by me on a recent trip to the Dominican Republic.

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