This week offers us two days of remembrance: Yom HaShoah, or Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, on May 2, and Cinco de Mayo, commemorating a Mexican military victory, on May 5.
At first they seem to have nothing in common. One is a religious holy day, while the other is a holiday for Mexico; one commemorates a loss, while the other a victory (among losses). Their observations couldn’t be more different. One is the most somber of days, commemorated by the lighting of candles and worship. The other has become a tequila-shooting melee in the U.S.
Yet there are striking similarities in these days: proximity in the calendar year, occasions of great bloodshed, and recognition of historically marginalized groups in the United States. By “historically marginalized,” I mean pushed to the side, in jobs and schools, and, literally, in many history books.
So, let’s look at the history first.
Holocaust Remembrance Day seems straightforward: in World War II, the Nazis executed an unimaginable genocide, murdering 6 million or roughly two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe.
Cinco de Mayo commemorates a day of deaths, numbering 600 rather than 6 million. It celebrates the Mexican Army’s 1862 victory at Puebla against the French in the Franco-Mexican War.
Ultimately, World War II and the Franco-Mexican War were won by people defending their rightful homes and their lives. So, both of these days commemorate deaths and celebrate triumphs over imperialism.
Now, let’s look at how we treat these days—and the people they honor — today.
History is written daily with our words and deeds. Just this week, The New York Times editors allowed an anti-Semitic cartoon slip through to print, picturing a dog with the head of Benjamin Netanyahu. More sobering, anti-Semitic attacks tripled in the U.S. from 2017 to 2018, according to a study released on April 30 by the Anti-Defamation League. Just a few days ago, a gunman entered a synagogue in San Diego, shouted anti-Semitic slurs, and opened fire.
As for the relationship between the U.S. and our Mexican neighbors, well, the writing is on the would-be wall. Our president infamously has called Mexicans “criminals” and “our enemies.” Federal officials are still unable to confirm the whereabouts of some 1500 immigrant children separated from their families, many of whom identify as Mexican. The Herald reported recently that the Miami detention center for migrant children will soon eclipse Homestead High in population.
I don’t have the solution for our immigration fiasco. And issues facing Jewish and Mexican populations aren’t the same. Yet they both offer examples of ghettoization of minority populations. They both expose how our casually racist language and our cartoonish notions of “the other” undermine our policy, our media, and ultimately, our humanity. Which is important in a town with humanity in the motto.
Even our sincerest platitudes don’t exclude us from a nation and a system that silences the voices and restricts the rights and safety of others. We can’t single-handedly fix these issues. But we can start with our little island in how we celebrate, and how we treat others.
This isn’t to say: don’t criticize the policies of Israel. Or perhaps more damning to a Key Wester: don’t shoot tequila on Cinco de Mayo.
Rather, strive to live a more empathetic and thoughtful life. In how we talk, certainly, and how we conduct ourselves, but also how we commemorate holidays, and even how we party. That means resisting donning the insensitive costume or sharing the unkind cartoon. It means allowing thought to precede deed. Key West is a place to have your tequila and drink it too—just don’t sip it while bemoaning the undocumented worker who just made your drink.