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June 2015

By Tony Baez, former Executive Director, Centro Hispano

Latinos: Race, Ethnicity and Social Change

I was troubled by the recent celebrations of El Cinco de Mayo. The serious nature of this day is no longer respected or understood by most Americans, and it has been appropriated by beer and liquor companies to massively promote drinking and partying.

This speaks to the dangers we face in immigrant communities when we promote events – with little understanding of their history and relevance – as symbols of cultural and identity pride, and then they become a distraction from the real harms of a continuing racial and social injustice against people of color and the poor in this country. 

The view that we are more tolerant or multicultural because we celebrate El Cinco de Mayo is offensive when we have allowed a growing trend toward social policies that increase inequality and place racially embedded blame for all the social ills on people of color. 

El Cinco de Mayo History

El Cinco de Mayo is important because on that day an invading France was defeated by a poorly equipped army of mestizos and zapoteca Indians led by General Ignacio Zaragoza.

France, Spain, and England, decided to invade Mexico because its first indigenous President, Benito Juarez, threatened to suspend interest payments on its foreign debt. Because of the 1823 Monroe Doctrine (where a growing US empire threatened military intervention if European nations tried to colonize land or interfere with states in North or South America), Spain and England withdrew from the invasion. But the French proceeded, aware that the US was weakened by its own civil war.

Once its civil war ended, the US reminded the French about their imperialist interests in the region. But it was Mexicans who died fighting for democracy; which they did for another five years until they forced the French out of Mexico and Latin America.

Working Together for Social Change
The battle for democracy, social justice and racial and economic equality in Latin America and in this country is not over.

The racial gains made to date continue to be dominated by what I believe is a false narrative of African American progress. In reality this group is besieged by the vestiges of slavery and new forms of Jim-Crowism. Because of their race, they are violently segregated and impoverished in most of our major cities.

Latinos must not sit by the sidelines and assume that such treatment will not come our way. Latinos and other people of color must work with others to build a US that truly embraces democracy; a society grounded on social justice, where the race or ethnicity of people are not reasons for hating or economically exploiting them.

Latino-Influenced Social Change

In addition to our integration to the struggles for social justice and equality, there are things that we can contribute to societal change that are unique to our experiences. I touch upon just two of them below.

In June 2014, the Milwaukee Public Schools unanimously passed a resolution calling for the creation of a zone that pilots and promotes bilingual learning. Over the next few years, all city schools should create opportunities for students to be bilingual.

Surely, this effort is not just about Latinos.

This establishes that an educated population, in today’s global reality, must be bilingual. It also makes sense that further integrating Latinos to the educational issues in Milwaukee can engage them more with African Americans and others that want to expand educational opportunities, improve race relations and unite in the struggles for economic equality.

For many years, US scholars and educators thought that Latin countries were part of a Third World that had nothing to teach us. From the ashes of violence and militaristic oppression that once prevailed in Latin America, a new landscape is emerging. Places like Uruguay, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Argentina, Cuba and Colombia are investing in children and families.

They are implementing educational strategies that empower communities, teach racial and social tolerance, democracy, engagement, and reject inequality. For instance, there are places in Colombia where early education is more sophisticated in content and facilities than in almost anywhere in this country.

Over the next decade, Latinos will surely help transform the social and educational landscape in the US, as well as what constitutes learning.


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