Back in the late 70’s and 80’s, when most white people didn’t feel safe in predominantly Latino neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission district (or inner cities, for that matter), summer started with Cinco de Mayo. Tiny, hyper-local street fairs where Mexican restaurants, crowds of happy, loud brown people and lamb chop-sideburned Santana-wannabe garage bands filled the air with cultural and political electricity. It went largely unnoticed outside of the Latino neighborhood, what used to be called El Barrio.
Cinco de Mayo’s mix—live salsa, mariachi and rock Latino music; sometimes-inspired English and Spanish-language political speeches and volanteando (flyering)—provided the soft cultural cushion for generations of citizens and non-citizens dropped by the American Dream. And none but the cigarette smoking Marxista even knew or spoke about May Day, the International Workers Day rallies that filled cities around the country this past weekend.
Thirty years, millions of mobile devices and a massive wave of migration later, Latinos have largely forgotten the meaning of Cinco de Mayo. There’s still considerable color, music and even some inspiration among attendees at Cinco de Mayo events, but the electricity of the events has been heavily doused by beer promoters trying to capture Latina hearts and minds and by military recruiters desperate for young Latino bodies. With notable exceptions among the more thoughtful Cinco de Mayo organizers around the country, event organizers no longer tell us that we’re celebrating the victory of the badly-equipped, but inspired Mexican guerrilla army that fought and defeated the far better-equipped forces of Napoleon III’s decaying French Empire. Cinco de Mayo’s loss of electricity has itself become a Latino-“American” sign of imperial malaise.
Instead, our electricidad has migrated to Primero de Mayo (May Day). Born in the U.S., after immigrant and other workers protesting in Chicago’s Haymarket Square were killed by police in the late 19th century, Primero de Mayo was, until very recently, a largely forgotten commie affair. Today, Latino workers, specifically immigrant workers, march against the militarized immigration forces of President Obama, and these workers are powering May Day back to relevance in a decaying empire that tries to border itself off from the rest of the working world by celebrating “Labor Day” in September. The day connects us to people marching throughout the hemisphere and the entire world; it previews and makes palpable the bottom-up borderlessness that is the only salvation for this extremely troubled planet.
So we now have a big border wall between the increasingly domesticated (i.e. distributors of Budweiser are giving vendors slick promotional materials celebrating “Lime-O de Mayo”) Cinco de Mayo events and the fresher, more insurgent and globally unifying Primero de Mayo. But in times like these—with war and corporate domination bankrupting community, culture and the planet itself—there’s more at stake than a debate over corporate cooptation or anxiety about the kinds of events we want in our neighborhoods. The difference between Cinco de Mayo and Primero de Mayo reflects the difference between forces pushing 50 million Latinos in this country to align with the corporate powers behind both the tea party and the Democratic Party, and the forces that are pulling us to fight the power—including that of the president of the United States.
Joining the beer pushers and military recruiters on the Cinco de Mayo streets will be the political operatives of Candidate Obama. Fueled by the Bush-like patriotic fever following the killing of Osama bin Laden, these operatives, including many Latinos, will be trying to paper over the juggernaut of deportation that President Obama’s other operatives, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, have rolled over Latino streets. Obama is breaking—and politically bragging about—records for persecution, imprisonment and deportation of undocumented immigrants.
But all is not lost. Millions of Latinos have marched and will continue to organize in response to President Obama’s war on immigrants. They and their allies marched last weekend in direct opposition to the militarism and corporate domination that define U.S. immigration policy and threaten the planet itself. As we marched in Primero de Mayo actions throughout the country, we celebrated and stepped towards a new, more globally connected country, the United States of América.
¡Que viva el Primero de Mayo!
(This article first appeared in www.colorlines.com)