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Sober Look at an Event Worth Remembering

May 05, 1999|JOSE CARDENAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The criticism certainly isn't much different from that against other mainstream American holidays. Like at Christmas, when symbolism often takes a back seat to commercialism, the meaning of Cinco de Mayo perhaps was lost on some during last weekend's block parties around Southern California, as it has become a holiday largely associated with festive music, tasty food and cold beer.

"The latest trend that I'm noticing is [corporations] using the occasion to peddle alcohol to the Latino community," says Jorge Garcia, dean of the college of humanities at Cal State Northridge. "There's this counter-movement: 'Let's try to take Cinco de Mayo back. . . . Let's try to make it what it's supposed to be, not a drunken fest.' "

The Mexican holiday commemorates May 5, 1862, when a technologically inferior but determined Mexican army defeated French troops--conventionally known as the best in the world--in a battle at Puebla. It was a short-lived victory for Mexico, which eventually was occupied by the French for a few years, but nonetheless a monument to the determination of the underdog.

In the U.S., the holiday has been celebrated throughout the Southwest since the victory, largely because battle leader Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza originated from Texas--when that state and California belonged to Mexico. The celebration reached new heights of popularity here during the Chicano movement of the '60s and '70s, which promoted bilingualism and Mexican heritage and used the victory as a symbol of triumph over the establishment.

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is not celebrated as prominently as the 16th of September (the start of the Mexican movement in 1810 to free the country from Spain), but it is a cornerstone of Mexican history, says Alberto Aviles, press secretary for the Mexican consulate office in L.A. Each year at the site of the battle, there is an elaborate reenactment that draws thousands of participants and spectators, Aviles says.

In the United States, Garcia says, Cinco de Mayo became a uniquely Mexican-American celebration, observed mainly at universities at the end of the academic year, conveniently during raza (Latino awareness) week. With Sept. 16 falling just as the academic year is starting, it would have been difficult to prepare activities.

But Cinco de Mayo once had more significance here, some say. The trend toward commercialization today is merely highlighted by companies' promotion of alcohol.

" I absolutely feel the commercialization has been an issue--and there's some credence to it," he says. "The keepers of culture have the responsibility to remind people of the meaning."

Tomas Benitez, of Self-Help Graphics, an East L.A. arts and culture center, says alcohol companies are targeting the Latino community in the same way they target other large American events and audiences.

One encouraging trend, perhaps, is that some Latinos--largely college students, scholars and community health workers--are beginning to raise public awareness about the meaning of the holiday and health concerns.

Benitez says Self-Help Graphics has been a part of the rising chorus of voices promoting sober Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

"There obviously are high-risk problems with alcohol in our community, but it's a combination of things," says Benitez. "We have to be responsible as a community and solve them."

Jose Cardenas can be reached by e-mail at jose.cardenas@latimes.com.

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