Among the hundreds of student essays read annually by judges of the Cinco de Mayo essay contest, there are always a few gems--shining examples of pride and cultural awareness.
"Every year we have some very interesting, original essays that make it all worthwhile," said Samuel Mark, director of USC's Office of Civic and Community Relations, which is conducting the eighth annual contest.
Last year's contest drew nearly 800 essays from seventh- through 12th-grade students in Southern California. This year, 1,000 entries are expected by the April 5 deadline, Mark said.
The holiday commemorates the battle on May 5, 1862, in the town of Puebla, in which a small Mexican army overwhelmed 7,500 French troops. Although the French went on to dominate Mexico for five years, the Mexicans' victory grew to symbolize the people's struggle against foreign intervention.
One of the most original essays, Mark said, was written last year by Compton eighth-grader Gabriela Rodriguez. She vividly described the Battle of Puebla as related to her by her grandfather, who heard the story from his father, a witness to the battle.
She wrote: "As I listened to (my grandfather's) version of the Battle of Puebla, I was suddenly transported to that time. I saw the fear-stricken faces of the Mexican warriors. I felt the pain in a child's scream as his father was being set on fire. . . . I heard the hissing sound of shells exploding in midair. It was all so painful, yet fascinating, to see how the will and pain of one had become the will and pain of all."
The contest is held not only to help promote awareness of the holiday, often mistaken for Mexico's Independence Day, but also to help students in their struggle for education. "We really see a need for students doing some research and writing. I don't think students read and write sufficiently, so that is one of the main reasons why we've been doing this," Mark said.
He said entries have been received from Latino and non-Latino students alike. Mark said he finds that the Mexican and Mexican-American students generally write with great emotion, touching upon themes of identity and pride. The holiday is second only to Independence Day on Sept. 16 as Mexico's most important national holiday.
Scholarships for $250 will be awarded to each of four first-place winners. The categories are Spanish-language entries by students in seventh through ninth grades, English entries by students in the same grades, Spanish entries by students in 10th through 12th grades and English entries by students in those grades.
Each contestant may submit one essay of 300 to 600 words. Essays must be received by April 5. The Office of Civic and Community Relations, (213) 743-5480, can provide complete rules.