Thursday, May 1, 2014

Not just another day in May...

Every year on May 5th, people in the United States (and to a lesser extent, some parts of Mexico) observe Cinco de Mayo – a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage. In Western states like California, where there is a higher concentration of people of Mexican heritage, observance of the day is often marked by elaborate festivals, parties and parades.

As a teacher, it can be tricky to know how to handle cultural events like this one in the classroom. On the one hand, you want to be knowledgeable about the holiday, in case your students have questions.

But, while it’s tempting to want to base activities and games around days like Cinco de Mayo, even the most well-meaning attempts can cross the line into what is known as “tourist multiculturalism.” This happens when a class only “visits” a culture on special occasions, usually tied to a holiday or time of year – for example, making Native American headdresses around Thanksgiving, or studying prominent African Americans only during Black History Month. While these activities are intended to highlight these cultures, they can often backfire by trivializing the subjects, reducing them to gimmicky, stereotypical dress, food and dances, and failing to provide a true and complete look at the lives of the people being studied.  True multicultural curriculum is about “in-depth, constant, fully-integrated” cultural discussion, activities and references.

So what do you do? Failing to acknowledge the day could be seen as dismissive or just plain ignorant. The best, most respectful way to address the day is to teach it the way you would any other subject.

Contrary to popular misconception, Cinco de Mayo is not Mexico's Independence Day; that event is celebrated on September 16. Rather, the date commemorates the Mexican army's unlikely victory over French forces (that far outnumbered them, and were better-equipped) at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. The celebration of Cinco de Mayo originated in Mexican-American communities in the American West as a way to commemorate the cause of freedom and democracy during the early part of the Civil War,and today the date is observed as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride.

Understanding why we celebrate the day - and why it is important – is the first step to handling cultural events respectfully and responsibly.

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