A Short Story of Racism & Appropriation

CELEBRATING CINCO DE WHAT?

I ducked under a low-hanging paper banner strung across the entrance of Lou’s Bar & Grill. Dangling rows of the same paper banner hung from every wall inside the place. Black flag cutouts displaying skulls and skeletal faces painted in neon white. A bigger banner of dead bones lit up the length of the bar where my co-workers were celebrating.

I was late. Sarah was going to kill me. She did not like being left alone with the guys for so long. We were the only two girls in our social group, which she didn’t mind, unless I was late, and I was super late.

As I got closer, and hoped she’d had enough to drink to nullify her anger. I didn’t have an excused for why I wasn’t on time. I could try telling her the truth, but I was 100% positive no one in our group, not even Sarah, would understand why celebrating Cinco de Mayo wasn’t foremost on my mind given the week’s headlines.

“Look who decided to show up?” Sarah acknowledged my tardiness but was not angry.

“Sorry.” I said. “Hey, guys.” I took the stool next to Sarah at the round bar top table.

Jack and Mike greeted me, but I couldn’t hear a single word over the loud music pouring out of the speakers. Though no one said it, I guessed Steve was in the bathroom.

“I gotta learn how to dance that salsa, man. Seriously.” A fairly drunk Jack tapped Mike on the shoulder before holding his hands up in a dancing position and shaking his torso so hard he almost knocked himself off the stool.

“It’s actually bachata.” I tried to correct him but no one was listening. “Not salsa.”

“Whaaaat?” Sarah lifted her hand to her ear and leaned closer to me.

“Bachata. It’s called bachata.”

“Huhhh?”

“I said it’s bachata,” I repeated, leaning closer to her. “It’s not even Mexican.” I tried to educate. “It’s from the Dominican…never mind.” I stopped when she stopped listening.

Sarah shouted at Mike and waved her hands in circles gesturing for him to order another round of ginormous drink bowls from the waiter who hurried past our table. “We need mucho mas Strawberry Margarita Bowls, señor! Cinco! Cinco bowls!”

How drunk was Sarah?

The other two started chanting cinco, cinco, cinco in their gringo accents.

The waiter flashed me a look like: You better check your friends. They’re baked.

“Ooooooooh yeaaaaah, cinco more margaritas, por favoreeee!” Jack repeated the order.

No way anyone knew the truth about margaritas, or cared, that the preferred drink of most Mexicans, at least in and around Mexico City, was actually just beer, tequila or mezcal. Even the origins of the margarita had come into question as not even being from Mexico in recent years. But, I reminded myself I wasn’t there to serve these guys another history lesson.

The night’s goals were simple:

One, be cool. Two, have fun. Three, stay sober and drive everyone home safely.

The waiter tapped his tablet a few times and loaded up our open tab with five more pricey Strawberry Margarita Bowls. He smiled a fake smile, and left. He was being flagged by three other tables whose margarita levels were dangerously low.

While I waited for my first drink, I couldn’t help wondering if anyone had picked up on the lack of authenticity being displayed for the Mexican holiday they were pretending to celebrate. I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they had noticed how Lou’s had completely decked out the entire bar in Dia de los Muertos decorations, instead of the vibrant reds, blues, greens and pinks flags of Cinco de Mayo.

My train of thought was interrupted when Sarah joined Jack and Mike in yelling, “Cinco mas! Cinco mas! Cinco for cinco!” Thinking they were so clever because they could count that they were five of us to the five margaritas that were on their way.

I looked around to see how many people were staring at us. But, every table in the place was just as wasted as they were. There was even one group of ladies, closest to the door, yelling catcalls and waving their Margarita Bowls in the air every time guys walked in alone.

I was beyond embarrassed. Questioning my choices. Why had I accepted another lets-get-together-and-drink-and-get-stupid-and-say-stupid-stuff-while-we-wait-for-someone-to-throw-up? They were not the only friends I had. They weren’t even friends. Not really. But, they were important.

They were people from work. They led the company’s marketing team. A close-knit crew everyone wanted to belong to. So, a year ago when they asked me to join them for drinks, I was flattered and accepted. It was rumored that anyone in with that crew had guaranteed themselves job security because they were college buddies of our CEO.

All I’d felt recently was shame. But, clearly, I didn’t know how to say, no. That or I was afraid of what it would mean for me at work if I did.

I had realized, just twenty minutes into our first hangout a year ago, these were not people I had much in common with, if anything at all. We had different habits, hobbies, religious beliefs and political affiliations.

I was a skin-off-chicken kind of person. They were all about their meat, extra bloody.

I was all about fruity sweet cocktails. They were all dark bitter beer and sour malts.

I was a read-a-book-cup-of-tea gal. They’re a bike-off-a-ravine-see-who-makes-it crew.

I loved marketing projects that supported social justice. They loved ones with bonuses.

I loved community service. They loved under tipping staff (like our poor waiter).

And, to remind me of these constant discrepancies, and solidify our incompatibility, Steven finally returned from the bathroom sporting his red Build That Wall t-shirt and a paper sombrero on his head.

Leave! Leave now! Make something up, just leave!

I looked down at my phone trying to establish a future alibi. I’d continue to look at my phone so much, someone would eventually be nosy enough, or irritated enough to ask me what was up. Then, I’d be easy to make up some family emergency and finally get out of there.

“Hey, gorgeous.” Steve greeted me knowing full well I hated him using gorgeous, or sweetie, or babe, or any of those awful pet names he uses with women.

“Drinks! Drinks! Drinks!” Sarah yelled and jumped on her stool.

The waiter balanced the mega margaritas with one hand, placing them one by one in front of us. At some point, Sarah’s jumping got so out of hand, I thought she might smack the drinks and spill them. Not that she’d care about making a mess much. She’d be much more interesting in how long it would take the waiter to clean up her mess. Looking for any excuse to cut his tip.

Meanwhile, across the table, the bright white letters in their large overpowering font seemed to scream off Steve’s shirt. Like, any second, they’d pop off the fabric, and walk over the table to stick their pointer finger in my face, and yell, Build That Wall! Build That Wall! I couldn’t even make out the words to “Poquito A Poquito” by Henry Santos over the loud shirt.

I knew it was a mistake the second the question left my lips. “You don’t have a problem wearing that shirt andbeing here celebrating today?”

It wasn’t a a whoopsy-sorry-I-messed-up kind of mistake. It was the might-cost-me-my-job kind of situation. But, I was going to take it back.

“Whaaah?” Steve either pretended not to hear me or decided it was better not to.

I wasn’t backing down, “You? That shirt? Being here? You don’t see a problem?”

“Nah.” He picked up his big margarita bowl, tilted his head back to take a long swig, then added, “No problem. Why? You got a problem?”

Sarah picked up on the last of our exchange and became alarmed with the tone. “Hey, you guys, wanna get those loaded nachos? What about the jalapeño poppers, extra hot.”

“I do.” I was answering Steve’s last question.

Jack and Mike joined Sarah in listening to what was gearing up to be another thing between me and jackass Steve.

Sometimes, despite how much Sarah tried to mediate, I was convinced, deep down, in places she didn’t admit to having, she loved the volatility. I could’ve sworn I saw her smiling the last time Steve lost control and called me a stupid dyke.

Steve didn’t really know my sexual orientation, but he figured I must be gay since I kept turning him down. Steve struck me as the kind of dude that didn’t trade in facts or evidence.

“I have a problem. I have a problem being. Sitting here, getting wasted, and celebrating what? Do you even know what Cinco de Mayo’s even about?”

“Hey, what’s this?” Sarah’s lame attempt at playing referee. “We’re here to have fun.”

“Fun? How can you be…” I didn’t know how to effectively get the message across to people who weren’t even aware of what they were doing. “…Sarah, Cinco de Mayo? A Mexican holiday, right?”

“Yeah, wooooo hooooo, cinco!” She said.

“But do you know what it celebrates? What historic moment it commemorates? Why it’s important to the Mexican people?”

“You sayin’ I can’t celebrate and have fun on Cinco de Mayo because I don’t know some history bullshit?” Jack slurred his complaint.

I wanted to say: I’m saying if you’re gonna be horrible enough to appropriate someone else’s holiday as another excuse to have more holidays on your calendar to get shit-faced, at least have the decency to know what it’s about. Be decent enough to pick a bar that respects its traditions instead of carelessly throwing up Dia de los Muertos decorations, when that Mexican holiday doesn’t happen till October. Have enough respect to identify their music and not sit here listening to Dominican music being passed off for Mexican, because everyone in this bar is too stupid to know the difference. Instead I said, “Yeah, I guess that’s what I mean.”

“You’re killing my buzz, chica!” Sarah complained.

I wanted to scream: There it is again. Where do you get off calling me that? And, I’ll have you know, chica, jalapeño poppers, not Mexican. Your loaded nachos with extra sour cream, so not Mexican. You idiots wouldn’t know real Mexican if it was delivered on a donkey carrying Vicente Fernandez. Instead I said, “Look it’s getting late. I should probably—”

“What’s up with you, man?” Mike interrupted me with his slurred complaint.

I wanted to say: You’re all celebrating something you have no respect for, no knowledge of. You have no shame. Then, you have the audacity to wonder why they call you the Ugly American, or stupid gringos. Instead I said nothing.

“Hey, man, you know what. Clearly, you’re not feeling our vibe, so why don’t you go home and cry yourself to sleep over all the world’s injustices. You’re ruining the whole damn night.” Steve suggested, leaned back in his stool and crossed his arms over his puffed-up chest.

I wanted to turn to Steve and say: You with that shirt! You have no respect.

I wanted to put my finger in his face and scream: You’re the worst kind of asshole. Sitting here exploiting what you think Mexico owes you, and in the same breath spewing hate for its people.  Immigrants you fear are coming to take your jobs and rape your women. You, who are just as okay putting stupid paper sombreros on your head, as you are with them putting children in cages. Drink up, Steve-o, it’s gonna take a lot more alcohol to help you live with yourself.

Instead I said, “You’re right. I’m outta here.”

I left happy knowing I’d be looking for a new job come Monday, but also a little angry with myself for not saying the things I should’ve said. I hadn’t walked out and was already regretting being the bigger person, whatever that means. I high-fived the drunk ladies on my way out, knowing they had no clue why they were high-fiving me. Is ignorance really bliss?