During college I was a member of the student group, El Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan (MEChA). “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) is a student organization that promotes higher education, cultura, and historia. MEChA was founded on the principles of self-determination for the liberation of our people. We believe that political involvement and education is the avenue for change in our society.” -http://www.nationalmecha.org/
Cinco de mayo was quickly approaching and as the only Latin@ organization group on campus we were excited to plan something big!
At the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California and best friends with the racist former governor, Pete Wilson. Putting pictures of their faces on a piñata and letting people have a go at it was at the top of our planned activities list — sadly, we didn’t know any better. After many debates and meetings, we finally came up with a plan to present to our advisor.
She was not fond of the Arnold and Pete Wilson’s faces on a piñata idea. She sat me down and explained why it lacked relevancy to the historical significance of cinco de mayo and its relation to the Chican@ movement of the 1960s.
On May 5, 1862, the French army, at the time the most powerful military force in the world sent nearly 6,000 soldiers to Puebla, Mexico. Standing up against a highly trained, well-armed military were 4,000 agricultural workers with machetes and rifles – brave people who defeated the French army.
Chican@s are people with a history of conquest living on their own homeland, one that has been stolen by the United States in the name of Manifest Destiny. During the 1960s, the Chican@ movement put at the forefront the injustices and oppressions experienced by brown people every single day. Poverty, racism, inadequate education, xenophobia, and eurocentricity were (and still are) the basis for the dehumanizing lived experiences of people of color in the Southwest and all over the world.
At the time, teachers in education schools were taught Mexican children were inherently dumber than white children and only 25 years prior to the creation of MEChA, Mendez, et al v. Westminster desegregated “Mexican Schools” in California; a case that both preceded and was referenced to in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka.
The repressive situation led to organizing in the 1960s. Student walkouts were blowing out and Brown Berets and Black Panthers were present forces aimed at dismantling the oppressive systems that effectively maintained (and continue to maintain) the status quo.
The Chican@ movement placed a strong emphasis on cultural preservation as well as cultural awareness by educating new generations of our history and denouncing acculturation and assimilation. In order to introduce and preserve knowledge of Mexican history and culture in a Eurocentric land, Chican@s decided to celebrate el cinco de mayo. El cinco de mayo was adopted as a day that would broadcast Chican@s history and presence in the United States, but most importantly, Chican@s’ commitment to continue to fight and struggle for the liberation of the people.
And what happened with the cinco de mayo celebration we organized on our college campus? MEChISTAS visited small businesses in the community and received food donations, piñata donations (for the kids in the college’s day care center), decoration donations, and used the money we had to stay true to our philosophy of cultural preservation by inviting a mariachi, Aztec dancers, and folkloric dancers. We also prioritized people’s education by inviting Chican@ studies professors to speak about the history and true significance of el cinco de mayo. It was a beautiful day.