Why are we celebrating Mexican-American history right now?

By the mid-1950s, the soaring life chances of Mexican Americans, by some accounts surpassing their African American counterparts, had already created a new “Asian/Latin” bloc in the City of Angels. But no one cared…

Why are we celebrating Mexican-American history right now?

By the mid-1950s, the soaring life chances of Mexican Americans, by some accounts surpassing their African American counterparts, had already created a new “Asian/Latin” bloc in the City of Angels. But no one cared to notice – or care to say – anything about the fact that Mexico’s second-largest city, Los Angeles, had, ironically, become the bloodiest battleground in the struggle between the two countries.

That same rivalry could be felt in southern California more broadly, as Mexican and Americans of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino descent lined up against Puerto Ricans and El Salvadorans, who had roots in countries just across the Baja California sea. These immigrant groups fought among themselves, too. In 2009, immigration activist Jose Montes of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles testified before a US Congress subcommittee that, in the 1950s, the Mexican American Civil Rights League (MACHRI) battled with pro-Chinese interests for funding, noting that “in order to get more of the federal money, we had to stop fighting,” and also in doing so, “sanction racism.”

But despite their proximity, the Chinese-Mexican war, fought at local levels, has slipped from the national consciousness. To some, it has even been quietly forgotten – and on some level, that’s OK. It doesn’t contribute much to understanding America’s complicated relationship with Mexico. It’s certainly not a topic of coursework.

And when the Mexican American studies movement got a real kick-start last year, marching onto the scene in California and spawning copycat movements across the country, no one said “fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” With Mexican Americans still so underrepresented on the local and state levels, they need their voices heard now more than ever.

But some academics, like University of Illinois’s Ricardo Zuniga, who’s argued that Mexican-American students feel isolated and left out when discussing their history in public, have also said that Mexican Americans themselves do not see Mexicans in that light. They see Mexicans as not only our longstanding, inextricable “ethnic cousins,” but also as individual fellow human beings. So while Mexican-Americans have never shared that sense of connectedness to Mexican-Americans in a nation that is themselves threatened by Mexican migration, they never feel like Mexican-Americans have abandoned their roots.

That’s why, as their national pain deepens amid the federal debate, Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles are enjoying a record number of celebrations. At 18 locations across the City of Angels, from the 14th Street Station in downtown to the Cesar Chavez Museum in South L.A., Mexican-American students are celebrating their heritage and memories of their forefathers. The celebration is being co-hosted by the Mexican American Studies Alliance of Los Angeles (MASALA), as well as several organizations, like the Mexican American Cultural Center. The theme is “Embracing Our Mexican Culture.” Each has a different theme, ranging from Mexican History Month, to Literacy for Inclusion, to Tribute to the Agave and Bean Procession of 1942.

And while other traditional Latino celebrations are taking place around the country, like Fiesta California, these celebrations reflect how we’ve become as American as we are Mexican. Many of the events have names reflecting “Latino,” which often suggests intermarriage between the two. An Aztec dance is performed at the MS Concert Hall. Men wear shirts with Mexico’s flag, “rebellion” emblazoned across the front. And if we’re lucky, we’ll be entertained by Mexican singers and bands.

Yet these small events in the midst of the hype don’t make a huge political statement about the state of Mexicans – yet they show how, when it comes to celebrating our story, people of all stripes seem to be saying “let’s not taint it by our politics.”

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