In America, we get these months to celebrate ethnic heritage, among other things (dogs, pizza, ice cream). Schools and libraries often create very meaningful programming around these months, but sometimes these celebrations feel like a tourist’s view of a culture. If you didn’t know, we are currently in the midst of Hispanic/Latino Heritage month, a month of Latin American people’s focused literature in libraries, public TV programming, and Latino Heritage month commercials sponsored by Coca-Cola or the NFL.
Since I write about Mexicans all the time, it’s Latino Heritage month all year long on this blog, but as always, I do have a little story to tell.
I wouldn’t say I dread Latino Heritage Month, and I recognize the opportunities (even for me) that the month presents, but I think many Latinos have mixed feelings about why a month to celebrate Latino heritage is necessary in the first place.
About two years ago, I was invited to a reading in San Francisco as a featured reader, me and another Xicano author. As soon as I walked in the door with my Mexican born husband, someone told us someone was going to play music, and that they’d be singing in Spanish, “De Colores,” and would we please sing along. Moments later, someone began practicing their Spanish on my husband. Later, as I listened to others invited to read, I realized there was a theme, one that had not quite been communicated to me. Each poet who read, one after another read about humble migrants, cultural misunderstandings, brown people who who worked the land, picked our food, and one reader pretended to be John Steinbeck and read from “Harvest Gypsies.” I began to wonder if those who invited me to read thought I was or had been a migrant worker, and then they sang “De Colores.” I’m surprised that my husband, who was already agitated, didn’t get up and walk out of the place. Our two friends who came to the event with us watched wide-eyed as the seen unfolded around us, a group of well-meaning older hippie poets, swaying as they sang, begging us to join in.
Later at home over the course of several days, I tried to work out what had happened, why it had happened, and it brought up all sorts of feelings about related experiences that I tried to capture in “What’s Up With White People Singing De Colores,” a piece that has offended/hurt/worried a few friends because it struck a nerve, but also, I guess, because “De Colores” is such a beloved song.
What’s Up With White People Singing De Colores?
What’s up with white people singing De Colores? Do they know it’s a children’s song? Do they know how embarrassing it is for us to sit and listen? Yes, we do know the words. Doesn’t everyone? And no we don’t want to join in.
We don’t want to kiri kiri ki like roosters or to listen to you do it. We don’t want to hear you sing using all the wrong vowels sounds, and we don’t care if the song was sung by Cesar Chavez and the American Farm Workers Movement. Yes, we knew that already.
And we don’t care if you love our culture, all the flavors and colors. We don’t care if you think we are the hardest working people in America. We don’t care if you think we’re the laziest. We are those things and everything in between. We know you love Mexican food. Who doesn’t? We know it’s your favorite. Mexican food is like pizza – it’s everyone’s favorite.
We also don’t care if you’re learning Spanish. Some of us don’t speak it either. Assimilation beat it out of us, beat it out of our parents. But you want a prize for taking a Spanish class, the one where you learned to say pio pio pio pi. Please don’t practice your Spanish on us either. If we’re fluent, we don’t want to hear you proudly mangle every other word, and if we’re not, we don’t want to have to pretend we’re better at it rather than explain because you made an assumption. We’d rather carry on a conversation like we did cuando podiamos ser amigos.
What’s up with white people singing De Colores? Do they know how predictable it is and how grating? It’s like old people saying “bling” or white girls with dread locks. And we don’t care if you celebrate Dia de Los Muertos or make tamales for Christmas. We’ve been buying advent calendars and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas all our lives. We’re glad to see you finally adopt and appreciate some of our ways, but now you want our approval too!
What’s up with white people thinking that we’re stuck in time? Do you think we sit around singing folk songs all the day? Did you know that some of us like death metal, Morrisey, Joni Mitchell (who, btw, never recorded De Colores) Bhangra, The Clash (even though they sang in terrible Spanish too), and Kate Bush?
What’s up with white people singing De Colores? No, we don’t want to join in. Sure, it’s a step up from “La Cucaracha,” “La Bamba,” or “El Jarabe Tapatio,” which you call the Mexican Hat Dance, but is there no other song to represent us, and why just one song?
Yes, De Colores is all about colors and unity, and yes, I get the song makes you feel good about embracing diversity, finally, and multiculturalism, but it’s never as easy as one song, not for us.
What’s up with white people singing De Colores? You can stop anytime.