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SOUTH GATE : Backers of Azalea Festival Attack Plan

October 16, 1994|SIMON ROMERO

At first glance, agenda item No. 12 looked innocuous enough.

To better reflect South Gate after a decade of abrupt demographic change during which Latinos surged to 83% of the population, city staff recommended that the City Council approve a carnival date change from March, when the annual Azalea Festival is held, to May, and hold a Cinco de Mayo Festival in its place.

"Historically, this date hasn't been a priority in this city," said Mayor Albert Robles at last week's meeting, referring to the celebration of the anniversary of May 5, 1862--the day when Mexican troops expelled the French from the city of Puebla.

The council was surprised, though, when the symbolic effort to replace azaleas with choruses of "Viva Mexico" was shouted down by charges of petty politics and cultural favoritism.

"Just because there's a Mexican majority in South Gate doesn't mean we have to celebrate a holiday that originates all the way in Puebla," said Victorio Gutierrez, a South Gate High School teacher who opposed the change. "We have a lot of other people in this city, Salvadorans, Guatemalans and others, who resent being considered Mexican and having to celebrate Mexican holidays."

Several residents pointed out that the city already celebrates Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, with a carnival, in addition to its annual celebration of July 4.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, the city has a total population of 86,284, 71,740 of whom are Latinos. Mexicans are the largest group in the Latino community, with 56,252. The city also has 4,754 Salvadorans, 2,269 Guatemalans and thousands of other residents from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and other South American countries.

The increase in the total number of Latinos was dramatic during the 1980s, an 84% increase in 10 years. During the same period, South Gate witnessed a massive exodus of Anglos, who declined by 53%.

Now, according to census data, Spanish is the most common language spoken in South Gate homes, followed by English and Tagalog.

A 30-year-old tradition in the city, the annual Azalea Festival honors women over the age of 60. The azalea is the city's official flower.

"We have no problem celebrating Cinco de Mayo, we just want the Azalea Festival to remain a tradition in South Gate," said Mildred Ward, 75, this year's Azalea Queen.

In response to the deluge of complaints about the carnival change, the council decided to postpone its vote by one month in hopes of reaching a compromise.

"I don't think there's anyone in the city who wants to do away with a festival honoring these older women," said City Clerk Nina Banuelos. "We're probably just going to have to celebrate both."

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