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Discúlpame, El Cinco 

Have you ever looked back on your younger years and realized what a complete jackass you could be?

Yeah, me too.

I had one of those moments last month, when I had the pleasure of sitting down with Benjamín Gallegos-Pardo to talk about El Cinco de Mayo.

Gallegos-Pardo is the chair of El Cinco de Mayo, Inc., the nonprofit, scholarship-supporting organization that hosts and promotes Colorado Springs’ annual bash. He’s also 33, a former teacher, a one-time school counselor and current coordinator of multicultural student retention initiatives at Pikes Peak Community College — and speaking with him was humbling for this dramatically less-accomplished 39-year-old.

Not only does hearing what someone six years younger than you has crammed into his time on this planet make you realize how much more you need to do, it also forces you to reexamine how you have lived your life. And if we’re being honest, some of what you see may be cringe-worthy.

Such was the case when Gallegos-Pardo, a Colorado Springs native of Mexican-American and Colombian descent, told me about El Cinco during his childhood.

“I was going to these festivals … as a little kid: 6, 10, 12, 14 years old,” he said. “It was one of the few cultural activities in the city that validated my Chicano side as a Mexican-American.”

Full stop.

Throw the transmission into reverse.

Let’s back up.

El Cinco de Mayo, the fiesta and car show that is upcoming this weekend at Mission Trace Shopping Center, was once a catalyst that helped validate a child’s growing sense of self within the context of his cultural lineage.

And here my pals and I treated it as an excuse for a party. We misappropriated it to fit our privileged position as upper-middle-class white residents in a comparatively small, conservative and extraordinarily Caucasian place. 

I was born and raised in a city of about 100,000 in northwest Iowa. As of the 2010 census, my hometown was 70 percent white, compared to the 18.8 percent Hispanic/Latino population, the next largest demographic.

I was considered a progressive overachiever because I studied Spanish for five years between middle and high school, and spoke it all summer long. When I went to college, I chose the language as a major, in part because my primary major, journalism, required relatively few credit hours, and in part because I loved the language and wanted an excuse to study abroad. (Naturally, I went to Spain.)

As a student, I inaccurately believed Cinco de Mayo (we didn’t even attach the appropriate “El” to the name) was Mexican Independence Day and a national holiday. In reality, it celebrates the Mexican army’s 1862 victory over the French at the Puebla.

But in my youth, it was a day to be marked by in-class fiestas and, in college, potentially fatal quantities of Corona, tequila and Dos Equis with my way-too-fun-loving friends.

I’ll get the beer, you bring the nachos and sombrero! Feliz Cinco de Mayo, m*********ers!

I’m embarrassed, looking back, by how inappropriately we misused that day; how we bent and molded the narrative to justify bad behavior. And I’m embarrassed in this moment by how the national dialogue abuses an entire culture to create an inaccurate and harmful tropes about “drug dealers, thugs and rapists.”

At the same time that my high school Spanish class ate chile con queso and sang “La Cucaracha,” Gallegos-Pardo’s elementary school emphasized the importance and influence of Latino cultures.

“As a kid, our schools would teach, what does it mean to be Chicano or Hispanic; or, if you’re not, what does it mean to live in a Hispanic or Chicano community?” he said. “It’s an opportunity for youth to learn about their heritage, their culture. It’s OK to come out and be Chicano. It’s OK to be educated and be Chicano. It’s important for our youth to understand that national narrative is not who you are.”

It’s important for the rest of us to understand that, too.

The 36th annual El Cinco de Mayo gala begins at 5:30 p.m. on May 4 (see Event Horizon, p. 12).

Come on out, have some fun, learn a thing or two and, yes, perhaps even eat some nachos. Just maybe leave the sombrero and cerveza at home.

Regan Foster is the founding editor of the Southeast Express. You can reach her at regan.foster@southeastexpress.org or 578-2802.

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