By Mike McDonald
St. Patrick feels your pain, Cinco de Mayo.
Pity the patron saint of Ireland whose birthday has become the National Day of Drinking in the United States. Now thirsty party hardy Americans have coopted a minor Mexican holiday and turned it into “Drinko de Mayo.”
Mexican-American history instructor Gregorio Pantoja is saddened by the “Cinco de Drinko” phenomenon, but insists May 5 can become a day of thoughtfulness and service.
“Cinco de Mayo: An American Celebration,” hosted by the college on May 4, was an attempt by Pantoja and colleagues to bring the community together through a traditional celebration of food, music and culture. Learning, he hoped, would follow.
“This Cinco de Mayo event is really centered around community outreach,” he said. “At the basis of the holiday are what were called juntas patrióticas or patriotic groups. With the battle of Cinco de Mayo the juntas started to fundraise and get the community involved. They became the news and support center for community members.”
Juntas were groups of people banded together to support the war effort against France, which invaded Mexico in 1861 ostensibly to collect an unpaid debt. Pantoja said they sprouted out of the American Southwest as Mexican-Americans found a renewed sense of pride in their heritage.
When news reached the U.S. that Mexico had defeated the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862, the first Cinco de Mayo celebrations were held in el norte in Tuolumne County.
Juntas raised money to support the soldiers defending Madre Mexico, but they were much more than fund raisers, Pantoja said. Juntas were the news centers, helped with legal costs and burial services, and looked out for their communidades.
“They began to be the center for community members,” he said. “Although the main point was to support the wars and find out what was going on with the news, they then became more involved with the community around them.”
Pantoja said he wanted to welcome students and members of the broader community.
“At the heart of Cinco de Mayo is community involvement,” he said. “(There is a tradition of) looking out for each other, taking care of each other and helping out people in need. We have to, as a school, become a part of the community and the community needs to become a part of us.”
Students from MEChA, Puente Project and Mexican-American Studies Scholars organized the event, which included performances by ballet folkorico dancers and SWC’s world-famous Mariachi Garibaldi.
MAS Scholars student Anna Buhrend said getting students, clubs and families involved benefits everybody.
“Most clubs don’t talk to each other,” she said. “Students don’t talk to each other. Faculty and students don’t talk. We need to bridge that gap. To come together and actually be there for each other is important in a campus climate.”
Pantoja explained how, at the time, Mexico and the United States were fighting simultaneous wars for the future of the western world. Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Benito Juarez were allied in existential struggles against slavery and French imperialism.
For the juntas and the people living in former Mexican lands of the American Southwest, this instilled pride and love for both countries, Pantoja said.
“This dual identity came about,” he said. “(Patrioticas) were Americans (that) supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union, but they were also Mexicanos and supported Benito Juarez and our mother country.”
That dual identity continues today, Pantoja said.
“We have students that cross the border every day,” he said. “Depending on what day it is or where you’re spending your weekend, you’re either American or Mexicano. We’ve been socialized to believe that we’re supposed to have a singular identity, which is a complete fallacy.”
Buhrend said learning the history that ties the countries together has given her an understanding of her heritage she did not learn growing up.
“There’s so many things to be proud of being Mexican-American, but they’re just not taught,” she said. “It’s either Mexican or American. Most people don’t acknowledge the middle ground.”
Panotja said he wants “Cinco de Mayo: An American Tradition” to become the seminal event for Southwestern College’s Mexican-American studies program and to grow within the Chula Vista community. He said that through education a commonality can be found porque somos una familia (we are a family).
Governing Board President Tim Nader said he supports the idea. He said education on the shared history of the two countries is essential, especially in these tumultuous times when relations between the Untied States and Mexico are strained.
“Anything that educates is beneficial,” he said. “Many people, probably on both sides of the border today, are not totally aware of the common heritage we have in this region. Especially in these times where on a national level we see a type of rhetoric that feeds on ignorance and fans hostility of people toward each other, learning about our common history and heritage is more important than ever.”