What we now know as Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. It was a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died for that cause.
These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation.
The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves, did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship. These issues had been at the heart of the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.
Despite this, many Mexicans continue to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. ¿Por qué? The Nobel laureate Octavio Paz had a theory. Examining the Mexican propensity to party, Paz wrote, “The explosive, dramatic, sometimes even suicidal manner in which we strip ourselves, surrender ourselves is evidence that something inhibits and suffocates us. Something impedes us from being. And since we cannot or dare not confront our own selves, we resort to the fiesta.
There’s something there. Strangely, Mexicans enjoy harping over the country’s inability to defeat foreign aggressors. Look at the examples: The Mexican government bemoans the Conquest nearly 500 years later, simultaneously outraged that Spaniards slaughtered and raped the inhabitants of Anáhuac and angry that Montezuma acquiesced so quickly to Cortés. The annexation by los pinche americanos of half of Mexico 150 years ago because of General Santa Anna’s idiocies still makes some Chicanos so miserable they start comparing themselves to Palestinians. (Palestinians! As if someone who speaks horrid Spanish, has parents born in Jalisco that are descended from Europeans, and hasn’t lived a day without potable water can logically compare himself to people who have lived in the same parched spot since the time of Christ.) That pretty pocho Oscar de la Hoya beat the Mexican hero Julio César Chávez —twice. And let’s not talk about the underachieving Mexican soccer squad.
According to Paz, the only way to live with such a bitter legacy is to party. And Cinco de Mayo is Paz’s ultimate example of celebrating to forget—even if it promotes a lie.
there comes a time in one’s life when you can’t indulge in margaritas the way that you used to