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WATTS : A Bridge-Building Cinco de Mayo Fest


Cinco de Mayo is not just another holiday in Watts, where community leaders are organizing a parade and fiesta to help build bridges between African-Americans and Latinos.

Organizers of Saturday's Latino/African-American Watts Cinco de Mayo Celebration, marking the 1862 Mexican victory over French forces, say the event will help residents better understand each other.

"I feel that if the people of the various cultures in this community don't come together and establish harmony, then small things could end up being attributed to cultural things and may be blown way out of proportion," said Charles McDuffie, co-chair of the Watts celebration.

The first Watts Cinco de Mayo celebration, in 1991, drew 10,000, but the riots forced the cancellation of last year's event. Saturday's fiesta will include a parade featuring car clubs, drill teams, bands and dance groups from 14 area schools, McDuffie said. Actress Carmen Zapata and Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams will serve as grand marshals.

Organizers said the goal of the parade is to familiarize people with Mexican culture and instill tolerance in those who take part in the parade. "If we can get the young people to participate it will make them feel a part of unity and let them know what others are about," McDuffie said.

The parade will start at 11 a.m. and travel from Will Rogers Park down 103rd Street to the San Miguel School Playground. A fiesta beginning at 10 a.m. at the school will feature music and booths run by merchants.

"We want some of the street vendors who sell cotton candy and stuff to go to the playground so that instead of making a profit illegally they can make a profit safely," said Alicia Zambrano, a member of the Watts Cinco de Mayo planning committee from the Watts Health Foundation.

While unity is the theme of the Watts Cinco de Mayo celebration, organizers are using music to emphasize diversity. Mariachis, rap groups, jazz musicians and Korean groups will take part.

"Music is something everyone can relate to," McDuffie said. "And this display of different traditions is just one step in understanding other cultures."

Watts, a four-square-mile area, has changed from a predominantly African-American neighborhood to a place where Spanish is commonplace.

"We have a lot of the same concerns," said Arturo Ybarra, president of Watts Century Latino Organization, the group organizing the event. "Latinos and African-Americans are concerned about the elderly, about keeping our families together, about a lot of the same issues."

Sponsors of the event include the NAACP Watts chapter, the Watts Health Foundation and the city of Los Angeles.

They say the fact the celebration is taking place demonstrates the willingness of residents to accept change. "Sometimes you hear reports that make it sound as if we are about to break out into ethnic clashes," Ybarra said.

Fiesta organizers said they were concerned the area's bruised image might keep people away. "The spirit of the city really took a beating following last May," said Charles Sifuentes, a spokesman for the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. "So we need to begin rebuilding the city not just from an economic standpoint but from an emotional and spiritual standpoint."

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