Cinco de Mayo takes on a renewed meaning for Mexican American communities this year, particularly with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott poised to sign Senate Bill 4, the Arizona-style “show me your papers” law targeting undocumented migrants.
The commemoration of the unlikely Mexican military victory over a superior French army at the Battle of Puebla in 1862 resonates with the resolve with which many Mexican Americans view as their untenable position in the current debates about migration and cultural change here in this country. Like the seemingly unstoppable French military in 1862, nationalist nativists currently have the upper hand in imposing harsh measures through sheer might.
While a Republican-dominated Congress and conservative state legislatures rush to implement anti-migrant measures, the alt-right media stokes racially tinged fears of the cultural Latinization of the United States. This tone is set at the top. President Donald Trump has spoken of Mexican migrants as “criminals,” “rapists” and “bad hombres.” And now he seeks to build a 30-foot wall along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. More recently, a fraternity at Baylor University brought old-fashioned anti-Mexican racism into news headlines by throwing a “Cinco de Drinko” event where partygoers, dressed as maids and constructions workers, chanted “Build that wall.”
Still outsiders to the circles of state and media power, Mexican Americans find themselves in a familiar role alongside Mexican migrants: that of the underdog facing powerful opponents.
U.S. citizenship, educational accomplishment, or professional status is little defense against such attacks. While some would argue that Mexican Americans should separate themselves from Mexican immigrants to avoid the taint of negative association, history suggests that alliance rather than avoidance would better protect the rights of both, particularly since many Mexican Americans are but one or two generations away from the experience of migration to the U.S. At the founding convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens in 1929, the great divide was about the requirement that members be U.S. citizens, a contentious issue given the large numbers of Mexican refugees from the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 who had been active in the fight against racial discrimination in Texas. The requirement was kept, and the Mexican refugee contingent walked out. While a citizens-only LULAC was instrumental in advancing the civil rights of Mexican Americans during its first decades, it missed a golden opportunity to make common cause against the common enemy of institutionalized racism.
LULAC has since dropped U.S. citizenship as a membership requirement to become a leading advocate for migrant rights regardless of status, and Mexican migrants, Mexican Americans and their fair-minded allies have stepped up to fight the good fight against misguided legislation that doesn’t amount to immigration reform but does infringe upon human rights. In addition to opposition from migrant rights groups, organizations as diverse as law enforcement and religious leaders provided more than 16 hours of testimony against the passage of SB 4.
But as Mexican Americans, along with Mexicans, know all too well from history, the path to achieving social justice has never been easy, and there have been nearly as many setbacks as there have been successes. Even the Mexican victory at Puebla in 1862 was short-lived, as French troops occupied Mexico for another five years until the resistance, led by Mexican President Benito Juárez, regained control of the country.
This Cinco de Mayo, the famous words of Juárez ring true as never before: “Entre los invididuos, como entre las naciones, el respecto al derecho ajeno es la paz,” which means between individuals, as between nations, respect for the rights of others means peace. In this spirit, Mexican Americans must continue to work alongside other communities to bend the arc of history toward the peace that flows from social justice.