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Freedom Festival : Hundreds Gather to Celebrate Mexican Independence


Food and dance mixed with politics and poetry Thursday at Oxnard College as hundreds of people gathered to salute Mexican independence and honor a culture centuries in the making.

The Mexican Independence Day celebration was held in observance of the anniversary of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla's impassioned cry in 1810 to free Mexico from Spanish colonial rule.

"It's all about people trying to achieve self-determination and control their own affairs," Oxnard College history teacher Tomas Salinas said of the Fiestas Patrias celebration. "And that's exactly what people today want, to rule their own lives and be independent."

The celebration was hosted by the Oxnard College MEChA Club, a Latino student group, in honor of Mexico's 11-year struggle for freedom, which was finally secured in 1821.

Oxnard College student Ingrid Munguia of Camarillo sat on the grass with her pint-sized children--Jonathan, 4, and Melanie, 3--soaking in the verse of guest poet Aurora de la Selva.

"I wanted them to see what the Independence Day celebration is all about, so it won't get lost," she said of her children.

"Just because we live in the United States, that doesn't mean we shouldn't remember our past and our culture," she said.

Rose Banuelos, an Oxnard College graduate now studying sociology at Cal State Northridge, said it is important to expose the past to young people, who never may have learned to take pride in themselves and their culture.

"We have to teach them our heritage so they won't get caught up in the drugs and the gangs that are out there," Banuelos said. "Now we go back and try to educate the youth.

"I wasn't very familiar with it before," she admitted. "But with celebrations like this and the history classes I took her, I'm getting to know my heritage."

Janet Peralta, Banuelos' friend and fellow student of sociology, agreed.

"If young people get to know their culture, they'll respect it, and then they'll be able to keep it alive," Peralta said.

Others took the opportunity to address current political issues, including proposed immigration-control laws and the hotly debated North American Free Trade Agreement.

MEChA President Arturo Silva told the crowd that proposals such as a law that would deny citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants portray Latinos as "scapegoats" and ignore the economic contributions made by immigrants.

"Everybody's origins are from someplace else, unless you're a Native American," he said. Lawmakers, Silva cautioned, "need to look at both sides of the story."

In another audience address, Gabriel Serrano, a Ventura County probation officer who works with the Santa Paula-based Lucha Inc., tried to inspire the young and old to rally for their countrymen. Lucha Inc. is a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the opportunities afforded Latino young people in Ventura County, Serrano said.

Serrano warned the audience of what he said were trade imbalances that would be created if NAFTA was approved.

At the same time, however, he challenged the Oxnard College student body to respect one another and championed what he called the "tri-cultural heritage" shared by Latinos living in California.

"We're part Indian, part Mexican and part American," he said. "You don't have to reject one or the other. You can enjoy them all."

Dennis Contreras of Oxnard teaches his 6-year-old son, Adam, about history by performing ceremonial dances more than 2,000 years old.

"For us, it's a way of life," said Contreras, a member of the Indian dance group, Xitllali Ollin, moments after finishing the dance.

"It's a tradition our ancestors passed on to us thousands of years ago," he said. "Our dances are spiritual in nature. They're done as a prayer offering to our creator, Mother Earth and Father Sun."

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