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Cinco de Mayo: Hispanic Issues
With Cecilia Munoz
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
Maria Meier
Congressional Hispanic Caucus

Monday, May 5, 2003; 2 p.m. ET

Cinco de Mayo is not only an important holiday for Mexico but for the Mexican American community in the U.S. as well. Contrary to popular belief, it is not Mexico's independence day but the commemoration of the battle of Puebla, when the Mexican army won a crucial battle against invading French forces on May 5, 1862. Cinco de Mayo has evolved into a holiday similar to St. Patrick's Day that Mexican Americans and non-Mexican Americans enjoy celebrating.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, and Maria Meier, executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, were online Monday, May 5 at 2 p.m. ET, to discuss the significance of Cinco de Mayo and the key issues facing Hispanics in the areas of education, health, civil rights and respect for immigrants.

The National Council of La Raza (NCLR) is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan, tax-exempt organization established in 1968 to reduce poverty and discrimination and improve life opportunities for Hispanic Americans.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

washingtonpost.com: Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier, welcome to washingtonpost.com on Cinco de Mayo. How and where is the holiday celebrated and what does it mean to the Mexican American and non-Mexican communities here in the U.S?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: The celebration in the U.S. is really a celebration of ethnic heritage. It's a way for the Mexican American community and hopefully other segments of the population in general to celebrate our history and heritage by commemorating an historic event. Perhaps the best analogy is St. Patrick's Day which is celebrated in the U.S. as a celebration of ethnic pride and it is celebrated differently in the U.S. than it is in Ireland. It's taken on a different meaning and that's true with Cinco de Mayo.

MM: As The Washington Post explains, the holiday commemorates a battle in Mexican history. The general who led that battle was born in Texas. He was a Texan. I think that it clearly shows the ties between the Mexican culture north of the border as well as south of the border. In the 1960s, Mexican Americans, particularly in California and the West, seized on this event as a kind of celebration of cultural pride. Throughout the years as the Hispanic community has grown in the U.S. I think it has expanded to be a fun celebration of Latino culture in this country.

Washington, D.C.: What is the status of relations between Latinos in Mt. Pleasant and the D.C. Police?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: I think it's fair to say there is some tension but there is an active and robust dialogue going on which we think is very healthy and can lead to big improvements in the relationship. We could sure use more Latino personnel in the police force, especially in the upper ranks of the police force.

MM: The Hispanic Caucus recently had an event in which the Latin American Youth Center of Washington participated in and our members were very interested in the issues the center was working on to improve the relationship between the Latino community and elected officials of D.C. As Cecilia stated, what is key to this issue is that the community is represented in all levels at the discussion and that they feel there's a forum created for their voices to be heard.

CM: In fairness, what's going on in D.C. reflects what's going on around the country. Latinos across the U.S. are engaged in a struggle to improve their relationships with local police.

Cumberland, Md.: Do you support tightening U.S. border controls and enlarging the border patrol on both the northern and southern borders to prevent illegal immigrants from entering the country?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: We support changes in immigration enforcement that would make our enforcement both more effective and more humane. In general, Latinos support the notion that the U.S. can and should enforce its borders, but the bottom line is we don't do it terribly well and we don't it in a way that's consistent with our values. At NCLR's Web site there's a lot of information about our proposed strategies for what we call "smart borders." Comprehensive immigration reform can lead us to "smart borders."

MM: The Hispanic Caucus supports immigration reform. As a nation protecting all our ports of entry is an integral part of our homeland security defense; however, we must also realize that our borders are vibrant scenes of commerce, particularly our U.S.-Mexico border. Many businesses and industries on both sides depend on a legal flow of goods and people. Any changes we make to border security also has to allow for this ongoing relationship we have with Mexico as a trade partner. Like many of the advocacy organizations we work with, we support changes to our immigration laws that will allow for family reunification in protecting rights of immigrants. We support allowing people who are hard-working, tax-paying, law-abiding residents the right to work and earn a living to support their families.

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: MM: We know that immigrants play a vital role in our nation's economy and in fact, we only have to look to the recent conflict in Iraq to see the examples of contributions Hispanic immigrants have made to our nation's military.

Arlington, Va.: Is Cinco de Mayo an official holiday in Mexico or any of its provinces? How is it celebrated differently in Mexico?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: MM: It is a holiday in Mexico. It is particularly celebrated in the Mexican state of Puebla which is the site of the battle between Mexican and French forces in 1862.

I believe it's more of a commemoration rather than a party celebration as it has become in this country.

CM: Perhaps the closest equivalent in the U.S. is Veteran's Day.

MM: Or Patriot's Day in Massachusetts ...

CM: Or Pulaski Day in Chicago.

Arlington, Va.: Good afternoon, how do you see the situation for the Latino community in terms of education?, is the Information Technology market, for example, getting a significant amount of Latino professionals?, thanks.

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: We have a lot of important challenges to contend with in the area of education. Latino children are a major presence in the public school system, but they're more likely to be in schools with poor facilities, to have uncertified teachers and face a variety of other challenges in the school system. With respect to employment in the technology field, there aren't nearly enough Latinos entering this field. In fact, we're making this issue a focal point at NCLR's annual conference this summer in Austin, Tex. We'll be having a town hall meeting with Dell, Microsoft, AOL and others.

MM: Education is still the number one issue in our community. At all levels, from Head Start to graduate school programs, we know our students are not getting the resources they need to succeed. As Cecilia explained, our students are concentrated in school districts that are under funded and oftentimes overcrowded. The Hispanic Caucus for years has made it a top priority to get these schools the resources they need to help our students succeed. Unfortunately, in the past couple of years, we've seen this administration cut funding for key programs targeting Hispanic students. This has made it all that much harder for schools to do their job and for students to learn.

Hispanics, besides being the largest minority, are also a young population. The future economic strength of our nation is going to be dependent on a well-trained and educated work force, so the time to make these investments in our children's education is now.

Austin, Tex.: Are very many Mexican Americans annoyed to see 5 de Mayo becoming a commercial American-type holiday? I know that a lot of people in Ireland used to get really testy about seeing the feast day of their patron saint turned in to an excuse for getting blasted and pouring green die into rivers. Personally, I kind of like the idea: U.S. culture imports things and changes them. Sometimes they become almost unrecognizable. But they stay alive.
Your opinions?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: While we certainly, like everyone else, enjoy having a good time and we certainly welcome celebrations of our culture. There's a movement within the community to focus on using Cinco de Mayo as an educational opportunity as a way to recognize and celebrate the contributions that Mexican Americans have made to the U.S. throughout its history. And we would certainly welcome more substance to Cinco de Mayo celebrations as well as having a good time.

MM: We have also seen the Mexican government use the increased visibility Cinco de Mayo has on this side of the border as an opportunity to reach out to the U.S. Hispanic community. So while this day may have a totally different flavor in the U.S. than in Mexico, I think everyone will agree that celebrating a culture is a positive thing.

Omaha, Neb.: What are the priority issues the CHC members are addressing regarding Hispanics?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: MM: Priorities for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus include ensuring quality education, access to health care for all, promoting economic opportunity for the Hispanic community, in particular, our small businesses because Hispanic-owned small businesses are the fastest growing segment of our economy, and reform of our immigration laws. In addition, it's important for the Hispanic Caucus that we educate others on the needs of the Hispanic community because our issues are American issues.

Rockville, Md.: I've seen several definitions of Hispanic, and while some narrow the definition to those of Spanish descent, others say those in Latin America whose roots are anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula. My wife's Brazilian and she, and other Brazilians, say emphatically that they are not Hispanics (even if living in the U.S.). Would the Census Bureau regard an Argentina-American as Hispanic, but a Brazilian-American as, well, Brazilian-American and someone from Dutch-speaking Suriname as ... (not sure)?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: The terminology is very imperfect. We're an ethnic group; we're extraordinarily diverse and there is no one word that accurately captures what the community is. So largely self-define as Latino or Hispanic. So some Brazilians may count themselves as part of our community and others may not. It's not an exact art.

MM: One of the newest members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is Rep. Dennis Cardoza. He's a Portuguese American from California and our caucus does recognize him as Hispanic and we welcome his participation. It is a matter of personal identity.

CM: In general, the term applies to people with origins in the Iberian Peninsula.

San Juan, Puerto Rico: I understand the White House is not celebrating Cinco de Mayo this year. Would either of you like to comment on that?

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: There has been some discussion in Mexico that the White House's cancellation of the Cinco de Mayo event reflects a souring of the relationship between Presidents Bush and Fox but we haven't entered that speculation and have been trying to point out that while Cinco de Mayo events at the White House are a demonstration of respect, the ultimate determinant of the White House's respect for this community is in its public policy decisions -- not it's parties.

MM: The Hispanic Caucus would echo NCLR's sentiments. We're far more concerned about this administration's policies both domestic as decisions impact working families and international as they impact our relations with one of our closest neighbors and allies. While the White House may decide not to celebrate Cinco de Mayo this year, we hope that they'll use the opportunity to respond to some concerns about how they will address issues such as the 7.5 percent unemployment rate in the Hispanic community.

Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico.: There is a program between Mexico and Canada that recruits workers in Mexico to work in their farms for a certain period of time. Why can't an equal program be implemented between Mexico and the U.S?. I realize that the exodus that has persisted for years from Mexico to the U.S. would not end even if such a program would to be implemented, thus, a greater number of paisanos would work in better conditions and would have access to medical and social security coverage.

WHY is this not done!.

Best regards.

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: CM: There are a number of temporary worker programs through which Mexicans come and work in the agriculture industry in the U.S. The treatment those workers receive under those programs is pretty appalling.

MM: While laws are on the books to protect workers including foreign workers the problem particularly in the agricultural sector is that they are not enforced and there's no oversight so the Hispanic Caucus is particularly concerned about expanding any type of program that would not guarantee immigrant workers and leave them vulnerable.

Cecilia Munoz and Maria Meier: MM: Thank you for the opportunity to share some information about the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and its commitment to issues facing the Hispanic community. Happy Cinco de Mayo.

CM: Thanks for the good and thoughtful questions and we encourage people to find out more about the community and it's institutions.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2003 The Washington Post Company