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Cinco de Mayo? Ask Arellano.

May 01, 2008|Elina Shatkin

PUERILE provocation or Swiftian satire? Let critics debate the merits of "¡Ask a Mexican!," Gustavo Arellano's witty, profane and occasionally edifying OC Weekly column. We're more interested in the Guatemalan-baiting, tamale-loving Mexican's thoughts on Cinco de Mayo. For those who still want answers, Arellano will be presenting the book based on his column at two appearances this weekend. Is Cinco de Mayo a real holiday or is it just a beer company holiday?

Cinco de Mayo is an actual holiday that commemorates Mexico's victory over France in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. What's never noted is that a year later, the French came back, slaughtered the Mexicans, then occupied Mexico for four years until the Mexicans finally kicked them out. If this is what passes for a Mexican holiday, no wonder the only way to celebrate it is by drinking ourselves into oblivion.

Cinco de Mayo vs. St. Patrick's Day: Who would win?

I'd have to say St. Patrick's Day. Leprechauns get much more drunk and much more aggressive than Mexicans.

How about Cinco de Mayo vs. Oktoberfest?

Cinco de Mayo. Mexicans, when we get drunk, we get happy. Germans, when they get drunk, they get foolish. More important, Mexicans are even more German than Germans. All of our music -- oompah and polka and all that -- is based on German music. You put a Mexican in Oktoberfest, he starts dancing. You put a German in Cinco de Mayo, he scratches his head.

I never knew the accordion was such a cultural unifier.

Banda music -- the big brass bands you'll hear rattling from a Lincoln Navigator if you drive around South-Central -- that's just a German oompah band. And in the conjunto nortenos where you hear the accordions, those are just Czech and Polish polkas. Nowadays, the only people in America who think the accordion is cool are people in Cleveland -- and Mexicans.

Some tend to lump all the Central and South American ethnicities together. But what do Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans and so forth do on Cinco de Mayo?

It's an occasion to party. That's the one thing that unifies Latinos. Not even the Spanish language unifies us. It's the party. On Cinco de Mayo, everyone's an honorary Mexican. It gives you a pass to get as drunk as possible, and I think that's something all races can agree on.

For an Angeleno who somehow knows nothing about Cinco de Mayo, how do you recommend they celebrate?

Eat Mexican food at real Mexican restaurants. Do not go to El Torito. Do not go to El Cholo. Celebrate true Mexican independence from tyranny by going to a taco truck, especially now when the Board of Supervisors basically wants to regulate them out of existence.

In a recent column you touched on "symbolic ethnicity." Care to elaborate?

There's this idea that somehow Mexicans will always remain Mexicans, that all we do is speak Spanish, not tip properly and swim in the ocean with our clothes on. But one of the main ways that immigrants first make their mark on the country (and by default, assimilate) is by celebrating holidays. At one point, St. Patrick's Day was only celebrated by the Irish. Now it's almost a national holiday. Cinco de Mayo is still viewed as this quaint, Mexican-only holiday, but more and more people celebrate it. This means that Americans are more and more comfortable with Mexicans being in this country and the idea of them ultimately being no different from other Americans.

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-- Elina.Shatkin@latimes.com

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GUSTAVO ARELLANO

FRIDAY: 7 p.m. at Libreria Martinez, 1110 N. Main St., Santa Ana. Free. (714) 973-7900

SATURDAY: 4 p.m. at Vroman's, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Free. (626) 449-5320

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