What is Cinco de Mayo?

If you didn’t know any better, you would agree with the idiot who recently appeared on a late night show and described Cinco de Mayo as a holiday invented in the US “to celebrate our neighbors to the South, by drinking” (see part 5 of this episode of Conan). Long ago seized by the alcohol industry, for far too many people Cinco de Mayo is a day to drink margaritas or Coronas, all while wearing a straw sombrero.

If you fall into this category, you are possibly racist but most definitely a pendejo. Well, profe is here to tell you: ¡No seas pendejo!

Cinco de Mayo commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla of 1862, when Mexico successfully defeated the French imperialist army of Napoleon III. The better-equipped and more numerous French forces had invaded Mexico. For that reason the day came to symbolize the victory of the poor but righteous against the more powerful. This historic day in the life of the Mexican nation–a nation which had been severely compromised by the loss of almost half its territory to the equally imperialist United States in 1848–-was celebrated almost immediately as a day of independence and freedom from foreign control.

But the day was not just a Mexican holiday. The events in Puebla also meant something to the growing number of Mexican Americans in places like California.

Spanish language newspaper like La Voz de Méjico provided its delayed coverage of events in the south, including what they described as “our triumph against the French” at the Battle of Puebla. Exclaiming “¡¡Viva Méjico!! “¡¡Viva la Independencia!! “¡¡Vivan los valientes soldados Mejicanos!!,” the paper left little question where its sympathies lie.

As the exiled government of Benito Júarez sought financial and political support from abroad, Mexicans in the States worked to aid the restoration of Republican rule in their homeland. They created Juntas Patrióticas in the US, groups with “the noble desire to directly or indirectly help and defend our country.” Beginning in 1862, that support took the form of monetary donations. At first contributing to a commemorative tribute for the victory of General Ignacio Zaragoza against the French, fundraising campaigns evolved to more directly serve “the war effort” of the exiled government. Juntas “raised funds to provide medical care for wounded soldiers and support for the widows and orphans of Mexican soldiers killed in battle,” as well as secure the passage of former prisoners of war from France and to award medals for distinguished military efforts.

The lasting effect of this was important to Mexican American community formation here, as well as Mexican nation-building in the homeland. Cinco de Mayo became an annual event for commemoration and celebration in the US, uniting the Spanish-speaking in their new homes and creating venues for them to showcase their presence.

So do yourself a favor this Cinco de Mayo and stay true to the past. No! I don’t mean go beat up a Frenchman. I mean recognize that your commemoration of something seemingly corporate and racist can actually involve something much more meaningful than a beer and a hat. You are part of a long history in this country, one that took pride and strength from this day.

What is a movement?

On September 16, 1965, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) voted to join a strike of grape pickers begun by the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). AWOC and the NFWA were distinct organizations–the constituency of the first were primarily Filipinos and the latter, Mexican. AWOC also had legal status and the support of the AFL-CIO, of which they were a part.

The NFWA saw itself as more than a labor movement. Its founded and leader–César Estrada Chávez–envisioned his efforts as a poor people movement, something that could fundamentally attack the inequitable power system which determined the poor quality of famrworkers’ lives. Though they didn’t plan on a strike in 1965, their larger project was threatened by being placed in the position of strike breakers. Their primary goal–recognition–would ultimately be served by the dynamic leadership role they played in the ensuing 5-year struggle.

In the same month they voted to join the strike, their English/Spanish newspaper–El Malcriado–began publishing pieces to help educate the Mexican famrworkers about the moment in which they found themselves. One piece asked “What is a movement?” It answered:

It is when there are enough people with one idea so that their actions are together like the huge wave of water, which nothing can stop.

The NFWA and AWOC merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers (UFW).

Bracero Stories

Last week, Hector Tobar wrote an interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times on one man’s history as part of the “Bracero Program.” As Tobar adroitly concludes, “Many things have changed in half a century. And many things have not.”

The águila has landed… and he’s got something to say

José Hernández–who is my most favorite astronaut of all time–has returned to Earth after his journey into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Hernández and his fellow crew mates had to make their landing in California, at Edwards Air Force Base, rather than in Florida, due to bad weather. They touched down on September 11, 2009.

As you may or may not know, Hernández was one of two Latino astronauts aboard Discovery during the 14-day journey.  More significantly, he is the first ever former migrant laborer to go to space, growing up as he did between California and Mexico with his Mexican-born parents as they followed “the circuit” of seasonal agricultural work.  Hernández, who was born in California, even worked in the fields himself as a child.  Now, he is one of only a handful of humanity who has left the planet and returned.

Both before he left and since his return, Hernández has been something of a celebrity in Mexico.  He Tweeted his entire trip, in both English and Spanish (which is his first language), and has been a regular guest on a major Spanish-language, Mexican news show–even giving them an interview from zero gravity.

In a telephone interview yesterday, he spoke out on the “immigration problem” in the US.  Simply put, he said the US should find a pathway to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented residents within its borders.  “I believe it’s only fair to find a way to legalize them and give them an opportunity to work openly, so they can also retire in a traditional U.S. system.”  Hernández also shared some of what he learned from his journey, restating what he had said in his earlier interview from the International Space Station on September 3: “What surprised me is when I saw the world as one. There were no borders. You couldn’t distinguish between the United States and Mexico.”

NASA sort of flew off the handle when Hernández’ remarks started making the news.  They made a special effort to distinguish them for being representative of Hernández only, and not the official line of the agency.

You can read about the whole story here.

Amidst the flurry of attention, Hernández offered more interviews this morning with a few Spanish-language media outlets, including yet another appearance on Televisa.  He reiterated his perspective on immigration indirectly, this time saying:

“When I speak, I speak for myself, my personal thoughts, or my personal opinions.  And though I work for the American government, as an individual have the right to express my opinions… Obviously, having 12 million undocumented people, the system is not working here in the United States, and it needs to be fixed.”

Earlier in the interview, when Hernández was asked how he, a former migrant worker, could become an astronaut.  He replied by thanking his parents’ dedication to his education.  He said as Latinos “we shouldn’t spend so much time going out with friends drinking beer and watching telenovelas, and should spend more time with our families and kids.”

You can read about the latest interview here.

I think Hernández is a spectacular example of so many complex and powerful forces shaping the lives of millions of Latinos in this hemisphere.  His success is simultaneously a testament to the possibility of individual progress in the United States, as it also undoubtedly speaks to the multiple good fortunes, decisions, and support networks he and his family had from each other and others to make their lives what they are.  His parents are retired in Stockton, where they live next to many of their children and grandchildren.  None of them have to labor in the fields.  I assure you, their story of breaking out of “the circuit” is as triumphant as their space-traveling son’s.

Hernández also articulates the strong refrain of familial dedication so important to the collective identity of being both mexicano and Mexican American.  He uses his own sense of himself and his collective “people” to stand as a role model for children and as a voice for human compassion, articulating both his stance for the legalization of immigrant workers and against “drinking beer and watching telenovelas.”

Some of us lefties might be a bit offended by his remarks suggesting that alcohol and indifference are what keep Mexicans in the US as poor as they are.  The reality is far more complicated than that.  His reality sees that this is a problem somewhere, in a place where people live who he cares about, and so he says what he says.

What is most interesting and endearing to me is that he seems to exhibit the familiar–the familial–to me. He’s one of those successful ones in the working-class, immigrant family, with multiple generations here and in Mexico.  He is the one who uses his life in proactive ways to be a bridge from there to here, and then back again.  He is us.

Here are the tapes of his interview this morning.  In the first, he introduces his parents and makes the comments I provided above.  In the second, he speaks to his family in Mexico, via satellite, and then introduces his other job, as “el jefe de lava platos.”


A Chicano in Space

I’ve been busy this past month, so forgive the delay, but THERE’S A CHICANO IN SPACE!!!

NASA astronaut José Hernández is currently in space on the shuttle Discovery, the second to last mission for the Space Shuttle program.  The 13-day trip has the crew docking with the International Space Station, to which they are currently (as of the writing of this article) attached.

Hernández is a former migrant laborer, and he is the first of this distinction in space.  The child of Mexican migrants, he and his family lived in both La Piedad, Michoacán as well as various parts of California (primarily Stockton) as they followed “the circuit” (la corrida)–traveling north every March for field work, moving with the crops, and the returning to Mexico in November.  Hernández was born here, in California, during one of the family’s labor stops (pun intended).

Agricultural work is a brutal form of labor and, as in the case of the Hernández family, it often involves the children.  Of course, the most profound toll on children is the lack of stability “the circuit” provides.

Hernández overcame the educational limits built into his upbringing and, with lots of luck, support, and hard work, is now the first “former-migrant-farm-laborer” in space.

You can read about him and his journey in this article (written in Spanish).

ADD: My apologies.  It appears there are currently TWO Chicanos in Space.  Hernández is joined by astronaut Danny Olivas as well.


Why I Love Living in the Barrio

Down the block from where I live there is an affordable clothing store called “The Gab.”  I hear they’re opening an “Old Naby” in the adjoining shopping center.  I can not wait.