During a week when many Orange County restaurants and bars are offering margarita specials and mariachi music to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, local Latino leaders and Chicano studies classes are trying to stress the cultural and historical importance of the Mexican holiday most familiar to Americans.
"I think the larger population sees it as a festive day like St. Patrick's Day and an occasion to go to happy hour," said UC Irvine Prof. Maria Herrera-Sobeck. "The Chicano students here are extremely committed and are serious about the significance of the day. They don't trivialize it."
Cinco de Mayo celebrates the victory of the underdog Mexican army over a much larger force of well-trained French troops on May 5, 1862, in the Battle of Puebla. The date has become institutionalized in the culture of Southern California, even though it commemorates a less important event in Mexican history than Independence Day, which falls on Sept. 16.
Students at Cal State Fullerton, who are presenting a series of events this week to emphasize the historical meaning of the occasion, are asking the public to "remember the heroes . . . and not prostitute Cinco de Mayo as a time for partying without knowing what it is you're celebrating."
A series of events, sponsored by the university's Chicano Studies Student Assn. and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, or MEChA, focus on history and the Latino culture.
"This is a very important day for us," said 20-year-old Dulce Medina, MEChA's treasurer. "The day symbolizes being an underdog and winning and coming together to show our unity. We wanted the week to be very cultural and intimate. We didn't want someone playing rock 'n' roll music or doing things that have nothing to do with Cinco de Mayo."
Other students said Cinco de Mayo gives the large Latino population in Southern California and other parts of the country a chance to showcase their heritage.
"Chicanos here in Southern California have adopted the day as sort of a badge of cultural pride," said UC Irvine student Victor Torres. "It's a chance to express Chicano traditions openly and in public. It's a time to enjoy our food, appreciate our regional dance or listen to a mariachi in the park."
"Many people just see it as an opportunity to have two tacos and a beer," Torres added. "But as they are enjoying that beer or food or music, I think they will be hard-pressed not to feel some pride in our people, who have rich traditions and a rich heritage that can contribute to society at large."
Cal State Fullerton Prof. Joseph Platt said the ever-increasing number of Latino immigrants in Southern California, combined with springtime weather, has made Cinco de Mayo one of the most popular events of the year.
"It has become a part of the Southern California culture," said Platt, who has taught Chicano studies for 22 years. "About 15 years ago, it was strictly a Latino holiday, but it is now very mainstream."
Despite concerns about the meaning of the holiday being lost amid the commercialization of the day, some view the occasion as an opportunity to focus on concerns of the Latino community such as "immigrant bashing, bilingual education, political representation and gangs," Platt said.
"It's a time for fiesta, but it's got to be balanced with the concerns of the Latino community. It's a time to raise the consciousness at a time that they are celebrating a culture."
Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, agrees.
"This year especially, our thoughts turn to the strength that the remembrance of this cherished day brings," David said. "The immigrant community is being battered and bashed in this political climate. While we may be feeling down and out, we find strength and illumination in what Cinco de Mayo means to us."