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Celebrate Cinco de Mayo, But Learn Too

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As a Mexico native, we did not grow up celebrating Cinco de Mayo as we do here in the United States, although it certainly is a marker in that country's history commemorating Mexico's victory over France at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

My family and I opened one of the first Mexican restaurants in Central Virginia in 1972 when we could not so much as find a jalapeño pepper in a grocery store. At that time Mexican culture was on the forefront of understanding what Hispanic culture represents. As Cinco de Mayo was picked up, predominantly by beer companies much like St. Patrick's Day, the date has become a staple in the U.S. as a party holiday. The first Cinco de Mayo was introduced to Richmond and probably Virginia in the parking lot of my restaurant back in the late 1980s.

Issues have risen from the perpetuation of the ideal that all Hispanics like spicy food and Corona beer or wear sombreros and ponchos everywhere and there are varying views of this phenomenon throughout different Hispanic communities in Virginia. 

I personally feel that although this holiday is the embodiment of cultural appropriation, I invite many to see that there is a very welcome place for the celebration of our culture on any platform, as long as it has the ability to help the general public to get a little closer to an understanding of Hispanic culture.

For instance, it is not untrue that universally, Hispanic culture values ideas that bring us all together such as celebration, love of family, dance and food. It is for this reason that we hold our annual Hispanic celebration, Qué Pasa around this time of year to meet the community where it is. This year, it is actually on May 5. By meeting the community, I mean if it currently has this perception of Cinco de Mayo as a representation of all Hispanic culture — well, that is where we meet people. With our festival, which includes authentic food, artisans and entertainment of Bolivia, El Salvador, Peru and Puerto Rico, we bring people in thinking one way and send them out with full bellies, big smiles and a changed perception that will proliferate further over time.

Today almost every Hispanic culture from Latin America and Europe is represented in Virginia. It is difficult to even go a block in Northern Virginia without passing a Latino market or restaurant. It takes time to educate everyone with such a swift growth of Hispanic culture in the last 30 years. 

So as long as the holiday brings people in, we have a space to teach them so much more about the beauty, ingenuity and vibrancy of Latin culture.  

This year's Qué Pasa Festival (QuePasaFestival.com) will do just that on May 5 on the Historic Canal Walk in downtown Richmond. 

Michel Zajur
President and CEO
Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce


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