Image: Michelle Obama Aat Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Win McNamee  /  Getty Images
Michelle Obama watches schoolchildren dance while attending a Hispanic Heritage event at the Latin American Montessori Bilingual (LAMB) Public Charter School in celebration of Cinco de Mayo, on Monday, in Washington, D.C. For some Latino immigrants, the holiday is just more of a reminder of the dominance Mexican culture has in the United States.
updated 5/5/2009 7:41:07 AM ET 2009-05-05T11:41:07

With mariachis, tequila and parades, Cinco De Mayo will be celebrated this week in parties across the nation, kicking off a commemoration of Mexican heritage in the United States as a pseudo-holiday that has been adopted by the general population.

But for Dagoberto Reyes, a Salvadorian immigrant living in Los Angeles, May 5 is more a reminder of the dominance Mexican culture has in a country that is home to immigrants from many Latin American countries. His prime example: Los Angeles-area public schools.

"Our kids go to this school system, and the school system is more preoccupied with Mexico's history, and not the rest of Latin America's, much less El Salvador's," said Reyes, director of Casa de la Cultura, a Salvadorian community center. "They came back celebrating Cinco De Mayo. That holiday means nothing to us."

It's a popular misconception that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico's Independence Day. The date actually celebrates the 1862 Battle of Puebla, in which Mexican forces stopped an invading French army. It's a date barely celebrated in Mexico and not in any other Latin American country.

Mexican-born immigrants make up the largest group of foreign-born Latin Americans at almost 11 million, a number that nears the total of immigrants from all other Latin Americans countries, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. As a result, Mexican culture has been the dominant Latino force in the United States, often leaving other Latinos to adapt or resent.

It's often as simple as commanding the dominant slang — for example, a jacket for Central Americans is "chaqueta," but for Mexicans it is "chamarra" — but it can range to more overt hostility or competition in the work force, and it can spark worries of losing cultural identity.

Ignorance and apathy by Americans
Ignorance and apathy by Americans adds to the mix.

"Not many of them know their geography," said Diego Martinez, who has had to explain to several people the island nation of the Dominican Republic is not located in Mexico. "I like Mexican food very much, but I'm Dominican."

After Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean are the two regions that have sent the most Latin American immigrants. Salvadorians are the second-largest group of immigrants with more than 1 million.

This population difference can mean a struggle for immigrants vying for better position in American society and in the country's economy, said Luis Guarnizo, a sociology professor with a focus on migration at the University of California, Davis.

"When you have a group in the majority, they control the situation, and they exercise some power over the other groups," Guarnizo said, pointing to examples of non-Mexican immigrants imitating Mexican accents and parents echoing Reyes' complaints about the teaching of Mexican history over that of other countries.

'Latinos look for other Latinos'
Immigrants seek connections to their homelands through music and other kinds of media, but in a place like Seattle, where the vast majority of Hispanics are Mexican, radio stations play Mexican music and television news is tailored to Mexican interests, said Jaime Mendez, who anchors Seattle's only Spanish-language newscast at the local Univision affiliate.

"I often notice that those who have just arrived feel isolated," said Mendez, who is from Colombia. "People sooner or later adapt, and the majority of Latinos look for other Latinos. Very few remain isolated."

Focusing on differences within the Latino community is not productive, undermines wider efforts and paints a broad brush over a complex issue, said Beatriz Cortez, coordinator for the Central American Studies program at California State University-Northridge.

The immigration debate of the past couple of years, Cortez added, has also galvanized Hispanics to group together even more than before.

"It is important for each group to have its own space, as we do here in the Central American program, to construct the way we're portrayed. But at the same time, we're forming alliances," Cortez said.

Mexicans have opened up opportunities for other Latin Americans, Guarnizo said.

Much longer history of migration
The history of Mexican migration to the U.S. is longer than any other Latin American country, dating back centuries — not to mention the states that once belonged to Mexico: California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

Most Central American immigrants came after the 1980s.

In Arizona and New Mexico now, more than 90 percent of foreign-born Latin Americans are Mexican. In contrast, the figure is closer to 10 percent in Florida and New York, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Those two states have a dizzying diversity in Latin American immigrants, from Cubans to Chileans.

For Jonathan P. Ramos-Pichardo, a Mexican immigrant living in Seattle, general relations among Hispanics need work.

"I think Latino America in general has to change its mentality of competitiveness and we have to work toward of the well-being of all of us," Ramos-Pichardo said.

More on: Mexico | Cinco de Mayo

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