One thousand two hundred and fifteen people—the vast majority of them white, if the many photographs on Facebook are any indication—took part in the fourth annual ¡Fiesta 5K Ole! in Seattle recently. Some wore sombreros, serapes, and big, bushy fake mustaches for the race around Capitol Hill, which was followed by tacos, beer, and tequila at the 107.7 Taco Truck Challenge in Volunteer Park. It rained, but people gamely did shots, played corn-hole beanbag toss, and did the worm on the wet grass. Bands played.
This was Saturday, May 3. The next day, across town in Fremont, the makers of Sparkle Donkey Tequila held their second annual Cuatro de Burro pub crawl, with live donkeys, a mariachi band, and a call to "Come dressed in the celebratory attire of festive Mexico." The first 200 people to show up got free sombreros.
What—if anything—is wrong with this picture?
The internet didn't exactly explode, but Marcos Martinez, executive director of nonprofit Entre Hermanos, tweeted:
#CuatroDeBurro is a #racist representation of mexican people and culture, right here in Seattle!
@SparkleDonkeyTq drunken white folks in sombreros and sarapes is like blackface minstrelry. I can't make it any clearer.
A message to The Stranger's Facebook read:
I really suggest you look into this racist event going on right now at Volunteer Park, stereotyping Latino and Mexican culture for Cinco de Mayo. It's hosted by The End 107.7. They have been avoiding discussing... their racist depictions of Mexicans and Mexican culture.
A petition on Change.org urging 107.7 The End to "Change Your Event's Theme!" garnered 318 signatures. It reads in part:
The event's theme... depicts Latin@, specifically Mexican@, communities and culture in incredibly superficial and appropriative ways. Mexican culture and imagery are much more than "sombreros" and "tacos" and in fact has a rich cultural history that these superficial and stereotypical imagery fail to understand and represent.
Hearing about the petition, the band Tacocat (The Stranger's music editor, Emily Nokes, is a member) canceled their appearance at The End's Taco Truck Challenge.
A few days after the events, Mario Campos, president of the board of Casa Latina in Seattle, says, "A lot of Americans think Cinco de Mayo is our Fourth of July. Which it's not. It's totally wrong." Cinco de Mayo, as you may already be aware, was the date of a relatively obscure battle between French and Mexican forces in Puebla in 1862, a battle that the outnumbered Mexican forces won; in the 1960s, it was adopted by activists in the US as an occasion to celebrate Chicano culture. But Campos doesn't see celebrations of it as offensive, regardless of the participants and the costumes—he compares it to Saint Patrick's Day, when "people wear green and a lot of shamrocks and drink beer." Of Cinco de Mayo, American-style, he says, "When people are doing it, they're not trying to look for ways to ridicule the culture... This is a country where people have come from all over the place, and [holidays like this] can be a way to look into other cultures... It can be a moment of joy."
So is this a beer-drinking moment of joy or a minstrel show? Both Cinco de Mayo and Saint Patrick's Day, in their popularized editions, arguably call up cultural stereotypes of poverty, drunkenness, and laziness. What's the difference between dressing up as a leprechaun and as a campesino? For one, Irish people are no longer being actively discriminated against and exploited in the United States. Gustavo Arellano, of the nationally syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican!, calls it "Gringo de Mayo" (google it to find his nuanced essay on the topic). Of the Seattle Cinco de Mayo controversy, he writes in an e-mail, "I'm only upset that gabachos don't dress up as Mexicans every day. It would make it so much easier for la migra to identify the right people to deport, you know?"
Garett Michaels, program director of 107.7 The End, says, "We certainly don't encourage people to do anything but come out and have a good time" at the ¡Fiesta 5K Ole! "It doesn't even fall on Cinco de Mayo—it's around Cinco de Mayo. Never in a prior year has there been any indication that people were bothered by it or offended by it." He says there was a "terrific turnout... I'm sure we'll do it again next year."
But is 107.7 open to changing the event?
Michaels says, "We certainly would have a discussion. The event is taco trucks with music, and it happens to fall on the first Saturday of May. People are out to have a good time... At the food trucks, people are mostly wearing jeans and sweatshirts—no one wants to wear a piñata costume all day."
But really: Is 107.7 open to changing the event?
"If there's a groundswell of opinion out there that this needs to change, I'm certainly open to it," Michaels says.
Sven Liden, co-owner of Sparkle Donkey, says their Cuatro de Burro celebration is "tongue in cheek. We know that you know that this is a commercial holiday that's been co-opted already by tequila companies." He compares it to wearing lederhosen at Oktoberfest: "We're not trying to make fun of people, but trying to embrace and celebrate." He says he and co-owner Stefan Schachtell are taking objections "seriously... We definitely want to hear them out." They've personally gotten in touch with the four people on Facebook and Twitter who objected to Cuatro de Burro. Schachtell says, "If somebody reaches out and says they'd love to talk about Cinco de Mayo and stereotypes, we're happy to meet with them. We're very small players in the scheme of things, but we're a local company, and I'd like to think we're very progressive. The last thing I want is to leave any unaddressed concern." They're meeting with one person who objected next week.
Schachtell, Liden eventually says, is Latino himself—his mother emigrated from Chihuahua, and she was here for this year's Cuatro de Burro in Fremont. Schachtell describes his mom as a Mexican American leader and says she's proud of him and his work. His mom is concerned, he says, "less about Cinco de Mayo, more about how things are co-opted to sell products." (His father emigrated from Germany. On his 40th birthday recently—they had a party called "Schachtoberfest"—his father handed the family lederhosen down to him.)
Marcos Martinez of Entre Hermanos concurs that commercialization is a problem, but says it goes deeper than that. "Like everything else, [Cinco de Mayo has] been taken over by the alcohol and advertising industries, with the added layer of racist representations." What should Sparkle Donkey and others be doing differently? He refers to an article on Feministing.com, "8 Feminist Ways to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo." Number one is: "Don't dress up like 'a Mexican.' No sombreros, mustaches, or donkeys please. This is bare minimum y'all." Other ways include studying Mexican history, supporting immigration reform, joining the fight to end deportations, and learning Spanish.
Martinez adds, "From the very small amount of communication I saw from the Burro people, it's possible they are Mexican. Of course, this doesn't change anything. Mexicans promoting the stereotyping of Mexican culture by white folks is wrong. Chris Rock or Kevin Hart can stand up onstage and joke about black people all day and that's fine, but you know that doesn't give a non-black person license to do the same."
On the national stage this year, during a May 5 segment on MSNBC's Way Too Early program entitled "Cinco de Mayo: Mexican Heritage Celebration," producer Louis Burgdorf walked on- and off-screen wearing a sombrero, drinking from a tequila bottle, and shaking a maraca. Hugo Balta, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, issued a statement that read, in part, "This is simply the worst example I have seen of a discriminatory stereotypical portrayal of any community by any media. The fact that this was done by a news organization is abominable. This wasn't a chance occurrence."
MSNBC issued an apology.