By Silvia Solis, Research and Evaluation Associate at Joining Vision and Action
I remember the first time I celebrated Cinco de Mayo. I had recently moved to Laredo, Texas, from Mexico City and, as a sophomore in high school, I found out we were having some sort of celebration in the cafeteria for this particular holiday.
It was odd, I thought. Being Mexican, I had never given much thought to this date, and yet everyone in this American high school seemed to know all about it. I actually had to consult my grandmother (a former elementary teacher in Mexico) on the matter to remember why this day was important in the first place. The explanation of this holiday didn’t really stick with me that day, it hadn’t before and it hasn’t since. In fact, this blog isn’t about Cinco de Mayo at all (but if you are curious to learn more about this holiday and why it is so popular in the United States, read this).
Holidays I remember
Growing up in Mexico City, I celebrated other holidays, like Día de la Independencia in September or Día de los Muertos in November (although, full transparency, I’ve never gone to any sort of 007-looking parade in the Zocalo for this latter one). Spending about half my life in Laredo, I also spent a surprising amount of time learning about and celebrating other holidays, like George Washington’s Birthday. (Yes, this holiday is an extremely big deal in this part of the country. How big? As big as holding a Jalapeño Festival for it. Please check out this NPR bit or this more recent Washington Post article for more.) We also celebrated Thanksgiving, which began out of assimilation rather than tradition, per se.
These holidays, among others, I remember, and, while I don’t celebrate them much any longer, they carved a much deeper dent on my memory than Cinco de Mayo ever did.
So why is it important to tell you that Cinco de Mayo isn’t that important to me, being Mexican and all? Because it serves as a simple example of the diversity that exists beyond the stereotypical notions about any particular cultural group, and of the differences that exist in thoughts, beliefs and practices among members of any particular sector of the population.
Because I am a researcher, finding the generalizable patterns in a sea of information is sort of what my brain is trained to do—to find the gems of data that show up often enough that I can conclude that a theme or pattern exists and, thus, is significant. The reality of my work, however, is that groups tend to be more heterogeneous than homogenous, especially with people who are multicultural or immigrant, like me.
People as people
I went to an all-girl, Catholic elementary and middle school in Mexico City, after which I went to a public high school and to college on the Mexico-Texas border. I got my graduate degree in New York City, have studied culture across a large region of Israel, and have worked with a Zapoteca community on the coast of Oaxaca. Do you think my life experience looks similar to those of many other Mexican-Americans in Colorado, or any other Mexican or American for that matter? Chances are: not really.
We are all very different as individuals. Sometimes we find significant overlap and similarity with people who grew up in our hometown or who look like us. Other times we find more in common with someone who didn’t and who doesn’t.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve had as a professional in this field and as a person in this country is making sense of the differences that exist between individuals, taking notice of the things that are unique to the person, as opposed to general to the group, and seeing their significance—in essence, understanding people as people instead of mere members of a group.
Finding authentic engagement
Diving in and finding out who someone is below all the layers of culture and because of the intersection of all of their different identities is what opens up opportunities to find something in common with them. It is in the assortment of life experiences that we may find common denominators.
To me, this is the formula for authentic engagement and the principle of empathy and real service in the name of diversity, equity and inclusion: to be curious to learn about a person’s life to find what we share in common—whether that may be as specific as having participated in a Jalapeño Festival or as essential as the love we feel for our children. Because in the richness and diversity that our inner worlds hold, chances are there is something we can agree on.
Whether you are celebrating this Cinco de Mayo with friends and family, participating in a parade, joining a festival, or not, I salute you and express my sincere appreciation for everything that may be behind this and every single one of your traditions. Salúd!