Cultural Immersion?

As Portland's waterfront hosts the first major outdoor festival of the season, the city's Cinco de Mayo celebration, I realized I was feeling a bit nostalgic for Mexico. I have traveled in Mexico, but not for years. I have never lived in Mexico. But growing up in southern California, I realize I lived a life very "Mexico-adjacent."

Then the travel section of the Oregonian on Sunday featured California, with a strong focus on Father Junipero Serra and the Missions of California. So this week I'm feeling full-force nostalgia for a place that largely exists as a ghost world, which is the Mexico that used to include large swaths of the U.S.

One of the articles in the Travel section began with a father's decision to support the 4th grade curriculum in California by taking his family on a driving tour of several of Father Serra's missions. I was fascinated by the Missions as a kid; an aunt of mine had a gift shop just outside the gates of San Luis Obispo. But I know I romanticized these places--envisioning young men and women gardening and making pottery, occasionally attending Mass (like I had to do), lighting candles, etc. Hey, it sounded like the hippies I sort of worshiped in 1968, only with more romantic clothing. What I didn't realize about the Missions until much later was their purpose -- an effort by the Spanish colonialists to "tame" the heathen indigenous people.

In my fourth grade class in La Sierra, we created our own Little Spanish Town. Odd, now, that we called it that, rather than "Little Mexican Town." We made a mission out of refrigerator boxes, my mom made me a fantastic multi layered, many colored crepe paper skirt, and we made tortillas and danced the Mexican Hat Dance. The local newspaper photographed the event, and ran a picture featuring three of us in front of our mission -- my classmates Jesse Gonzales, Juan Martinez, and me (no Mexican heritage, but my Cherokee roots must have passed muster to the photographer). I love the photo now, because it sums up a lot of weird colonial complications: two young Mexican-American boys, a ten year old American hodgepodge German-Cherokee girl, posing in front of a Little Spanish Town in a middle class school in southern California.

So now we've embraced Cinco de Mayo as another holiday to have carnival rides, music, food on a stick, and fireworks, all in Waterfront Park. I think as Americans, we often relate to other cultures in an "adjacent" sort of way, putting our own spin on them as we hold on to our own remote heritage or the heritage of others. I don't think there's anything shameful in that; I actually believe it's part of our quirky charm. But I hope as we all grow up (still working on that) we engage with the deeper truths about these holidays and rituals, which gives us a richer experience with them.

So for Cinco de Mayo, while we drink our margaritas and toast "viva la Mexico," I'm not suggesting we also chant "down with France." But wouldn't it be great if we all knew what Cinco de Mayo was celebrating?


MightyToyCannon said...

Nice post. As a California-bred boy, I remember making models of Spanish missions using sugar cubes for adobe bricks. My grandmother's house was just off Alameda de las Pulgas (Avenue of the Fleas), not far from El Camino Real in San Mateo. Still, with all that history surrounding us, Hispanic culture was largely kept at arms length ... it was all history, not taught as living culture.

Now, why do I feel a thirst for a margarita in the middle of the day?

cynseattle said...

Give in to the thirst, MTC!

Unknown said...

Growing up near that other border (the Canadian one) I didn't get to make little missions. But I remember a splendid sixth-grade class project of constructing an entire medieval castle and surrounding village from papier-mache.

I hope this doesn't mean I have to drink a flagon of mead instead of a margarita.