I’m caught between laughter and annoyance. A fraternity and a sorority at Dartmouth College decided to cancel a fundraiser called “Phiesta” (they share the Greek letter PHI) after a student complained about cultural misappropriation.
The student, Daniela Hernandez wrote: “As a Mexican-born, United-States-raised, first-generation woman of color, it was sadly unsurprising that a culturally-themed party was seen as a casual venture for such a privileged institution such as Dartmouth.”
Why do I want to laugh? One of the signs of being welcome and recognized in the United States is to have your holidays absorbed and your culture imitated by the larger population. Think of it as the opposite of “othering.”
Think about St. Patrick’s Day, the feast day of the patron of Ireland. Do you know what Americans do? They dress up like LEPRECHANS, get drunk, and play “Irish” songs – one of which, Danny Boy, was “misappropriated” by an Englishman. And Ms. Hernandez thinks that Dartmouth is bad? Notre Dame’s mascot is a stereotype of Irish redheads!
I’m also laughing at Ms. Hernandez’s knee-jerk reaction based on the use of a Spanish word. “Fiesta” isn’t a Mexican word; it’s used by people of various heritages across the Americas. It’s even in the English dictionary like so many French and Italian words.
Calling the fundraising party “PHIesta” was simply a pun. A clever one, I say, since I like puns.
But what’s annoying? Ms. Hernandez didn’t even bother to look into the event before she wrote her qualifier-filled** e-mail of complaint. Despite it being a couple weeks before Cinco de Mayo, the sorority and fraternity weren’t adding a Southwestern theme.
Yes, I wrote “Southwestern” for a reason. The Cinco de Mayo celebrated in the US – and as Ms. Hernandez has celebrated it since she was raised in the US – is an AMERICAN holiday. Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans of the Civil War era heard of the Mexican victory over the French army (the biggest army in the world at that time). So they took to the streets, singing and celebrating in towns throughout the Southwestern US. Other Spanish-speakers joined in, whether they were American citizens or Central American immigrants.
According to a paper published by historians in 2007:
“The holiday, which has been celebrated in California continuously (emphasis mine) since 1863, is virtually ignored in Mexico. Cinco de Mayo festivals here (in the California) are characterized by parades, patriotic speeches and picnics, along with the prominent display of both the Mexican and U.S. flags.”
**You might ask, what’s a “qualifier”? It’s a description of oneself used to show expertise in a subject matter. Generally people write or say “as a ____” with the blank filled in with various nouns showing one’s expertise. For example, “As a doctor, I recommend surgery.”
Unfortunately, it’s often used during discussions to disqualify other people’s opinions or arguments. The funniest one I ever heard was at the University of Michigan, when a classmate started her statement with “as a lesbian woman of color in history, I…”. “Lesbian woman” was redundant, and obviously she meant she was majoring in History, not that she was historical. Did I mention that this was a Chicana Literature class? Or that almost all of us students were “women of color?” So when she spoke in such a pompous tone about such an ordinary life experience, several students coughed and hid their faces to avoid looking at each other. I admit I was one of them. I don’t recall what the solitary male student did; he was one of three who started the class, and he seemed to think that his Hispanic-ness would act as a shield when various Chicana feminist works were read.