One of the most transformative moments of my life happened in Mexico. My friend Kevin and I had gone backpacking there the summer of 1998 after my second year in college because it was cheap and it seemed dangerous enough to be a great adventure. We met an Argentinian in a hostel in Mexico City who told us that he could introduce us to the Zapatistas, the cool new revolutionary group that had staged an uprising in response to NAFTA in 1994. They wore ski masks and their leader Subcomandante Marcos smoked a pipe through his ski mask. In other words, they were badass in a way that was attractive to a privileged middle-class white boy for the same reason that I bought Straight Outta Compton.
We got split up from the Argentinian, but we went down to Chiapas with the vague hopes of coming across a real life Zapatista. Maybe he would have an AK-47. Maybe we could take a picture with him. Wouldn’t that be so epic? These weren’t things we said aloud. But my heart started beating fast when we got off the overnight bus in San Cristobal de las Casas. Especially when I saw indigenous people holding protest signs in the square. But the allure started to wear off because I also saw dozens of other twenty year old gringos filling up the streets and the bars, apparently having come to Chiapas for the same purpose, to see the Zapatistas. I learned that San Cristobal had built an industry called Zapaturismo around selling Zapatista-ish paraphernalia to white college kids.
The moment everything shattered was when I saw three frat boys deck themselves out in ski masks and Zapatista t-shirts so they could make laughing muscle poses for a picture. I can’t remember if they were holding beers at the time but they were definitely in party mode. I felt a tug on my shirt from behind me. Two little girls were standing there with the color-coded Mayan dresses from their village. Each of them had a handful of Zapatista dolls that were visibly falling apart in their hands. They were a peso apiece. And they said, “Compralo! Señor por favor compralo!” Each of them was pulling on my hands while they spoke. And God ripped my heart out and told me it was time for me to stop being a tourist and give my life to his kingdom. That’s what wrote that night in my journal: I can never be a tourist again. Most of my life over the 19 years since then has been a series of attempts to respond adequately to what I experienced in that moment.
Tourism is the fundamental posture by which many white people engage the cultures in our world, especially Mexico, the favorite overseas drunken spring break destination of our college students. Their cities and outfits and festivals exist to serve as cute backdrops for our postcards. Their holidays exist for us to throw parties with funny hats and props and accents to celebrate. We love their food and their culture. We just don’t want their people living in our country because they’re poor and stupid and backward and they drag our economy down. So as long as they’re waiters and chefs and mariachi bands whose purpose is to provide our entertainment, it’s good. But the purpose of their existence is to give us a good party.Every year when Cinco de Mayo approaches, I cringe in anticipation of the latest news story about the bros in sombreros with mustaches sharpied onto their faces speaking Spanglish and having a grand old time. Well this year it’s Baylor University’s Kappa Sigma fraternity that kept the tradition going. So I was thinking about how to address the latest thing that guys who look like me have done to belittle another culture and show how disgustingly self-centered they are. And I thought: what is the right way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo? The more I thought about it, the more I realized there really isn’t one for white people.
Because in Mexico, it’s a holiday that celebrates the Europeans getting kicked out of Mexico. So the idea that gringos would celebrate Cinco de Mayo is the ultimate perversion and disrespect. Haha you failed to kick us out so now we get to lampoon your culture for a night. It’s only in the last twenty years that the beer companies have grabbed hold of Cinco de Mayo and turned it into a cheesy party for white people. This year, most of the white people who will celebrate Cinco de Mayo and shout “Amigo!” boisterously to their friends are people who voted seven months ago to kick the Mexicans out of our country and build a wall to keep them from coming back.
So how about this year, you go without the costumes, the fake accent, and all the blustery, fiesta bravado? How about you just enjoy your tacos and margaritas like any other Friday night? And if an actual Mexican invites you to a party that specifically celebrates Cinco de Mayo, try not to drink too much so you won’t do things that make white people look like thoughtless tourists.
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