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A Holiday of Import

Fiestas, parades, picnics mark a minor Mexican observance that's crossed cultural lines to become a major one here.

May 01, 1997|LEILA COBO-HANLON and BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The banners have been waving in virtually every public school in the Southland for weeks, bright colors and Mexican flags announcing Cinco de Mayo fiestas, carnivals and picnics.

It's a long way from "Hasta con las piedras" (Even with stones), the battle cry heard May 5, 1862, when a bedraggled, outnumbered and out-armed group of Mexican soldiers joined forces with the civilian population of Puebla to defeat the attack of a handsomely equipped platoon of French invaders.

Although it took Mexico five more years to win the war against the French, the bravery displayed in Puebla went down in history as a source of heroic lore and pride for Mexicans.

But in Southern California, Cinco de Mayo long ago transcended ethnic and nationalistic lines. Never mind that in Mexico it is a minor holiday, something akin to the United States' Flag Day, since Mexican Independence is celebrated Sept. 16. Here, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated on a massive scale surpassed by few, if any, other ethnic holidays. With Cinco falling on a Monday, this year's celebration is extended into a weekendful of events.

The reasons for Cinco de Mayo's unbridled success in Southern California are cause for speculation.

"There's a lot of Mexican influence here, of course," noted Cheryl Krupp, manager at the Swallow's Inn in San Juan Capistrano. "But I just think it's a good excuse to party, myself." The folks at the Swallow's need no excuse for a rip-roaring party under any circumstances; proceed with caution when they advertise a Cinco de Mayo bash.

On the stated agenda at the Swallow's, for starters, are contests including tag-team beer chugging and one called "shoot and grito," involving shots of tequila followed by a holler that Krupp described as "a Mexican yelp." Perhaps the fact that winners are promised prizes dispels any concerns about chugging and/or yelping on a Monday.

Pio Ferro, programming director of KLVE, also believes that partying is the primary reason for the holiday's popularity. KLVE and sister station KTNQ have sponsored Cinco de Mayo at El Monte's Whittier Narrows Park for the last seven years (this year's fiesta is Sunday). The noon-to-5 p.m. event has drawn more than 100,000 (don't even think of arriving after noon), and revolves around performances by some of the station's most-played artists, which this year include Puerto Rican heartthrob Ricky Martin and Spanish diva Rocio Durcal.

In contrast, KLAX's Cinco de Mayo fest, Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum, is purely Mexican, featuring several banda groups and, the coup of coups: mega-popular band Bronco, playing its last concert in Los Angeles as part of its farewell tour. The concert is free, a deliberate concession to KLAX listeners. "It's the most Mexican celebration, by the people, for the people," programming director Juan Carlos Hidalgo says with dramatic flair.

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This Populist view of Cinco de Mayo has contributed to its success in the United States, according to historian William Estrada, curator at El Pueblo Monument in Los Angeles. Just as they did in Puebla, "many of the Mexicans who came here faced insurmountable odds," Estrada says. "Cinco de Mayo is more about beating the odds than Mexican independence. It's more a people's victory."

And it falls on a very convenient date. According to former Los Angeles Board of Education member Larry Gonzalez, Cinco de Mayo celebrations were created by the public schools.

"With the '60s coming in and Chicanos protesting that not enough culture and heritage was taught to kids . . . I think the school system wanted to recognize a Mexican celebration, and there was nothing else going on in the spring. . . . They didn't give us an event, but they created the space for us," Gonzalez says.

There is no doubt that Cinco de Mayo has become an institution. Not only is it marked in some way by just about every public and private school in Los Angeles and Orange County, but many municipal governments sponsor some kind of event in its honor.

The city of San Clemente's Department of Parks and Recreation, for instance, stages a festival complete with mariachis, Aztec dancing, rodeo ropers, soccer relays, antique cars, food and an art contest Saturday at Max Berg Plaza Park.

Civic and business leaders in downtown Santa Ana, the heart of Orange County's largest Mexican American population, downplay Cinco de Mayo in favor of Mother's Day and Mexican Independence Day celebrations. But the county's oldest radio station, KWIZ-AM (1480) takes up the slack in a big way with its ninth annual alcohol-free Cinco de Mayo celebration Saturday and Sunday at Centennial Park in Santa Ana. The event promises carnival rides, live entertainment and arts and crafts booths.

In Los Angeles, celebrations at historic Olvera Street date back to the 19th century, and today, the three-day Celebracion Cinco is a free family event that traditionally draws thousands.

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