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Cinco de Mayo Finds New Life in Heartland


RUPERT, Idaho — It's a majestic 1962 Chevy Impala, painted black and lowered very close to the ground. Paul Andrade, a retired potato factory worker, has spent years polishing its chrome wheels. Sometimes he takes it out to cruise the main drag in this small farm town, past the grain elevators and feed stores.

This Saturday, when his Impala rumbles past the town square, Andrade will open a new chapter in Rupert's history. A troop of young men pedaling low-rider bicycles will make history too. So will a group of middle-age soccer players and an immigrant horse trainer from Zacatecas who will spin a lariat over his head.

All of them will be part of the first Cinco de Mayo parade in Rupert (pop. 5,936), a sort of coming-out party for the Mexican and Mexican American families that have long been a quiet, marginalized minority in this corner of southern Idaho.

"Years ago, we were the only Mexican family on this block," says Andrade, 65. "There wasn't a lot of Mexican people you could gather around before. Now everyone here is from Mexico. And when there's a parade, Mexicans will always be there."

Born in the Southwest as a Mexican American cultural hybrid, Cinco de Mayo has in recent years spread northward and eastward, following the migration of Latino immigrants across the continent. This week, the holiday will be celebrated in such improbable places as Garden City, Kan.; Lexington, Neb.; and Duluth, Minn. In Pasco, Wash., residents are voting for the "Tri-City" Cinco de Mayo queen on the Internet.

In the largest cities of California and Texas, Cinco de Mayo has become a commercialized affair--as drained of meaning as chocolate bunnies on Easter. But in places like Rupert it remains a genuine celebration of Mexican culture.

Here in Idaho's "Magic Valley," Cinco de Mayo is a new thing. People speak about the holiday with a heartwarming earnestness. The teenage girls running for Cinco de Mayo queen say they want to set an example for the town's children. The Mexicano merchants sponsoring the parade see it as a symbol of their own success.

"I just want to say something to the Hispanics out there," one of the six teenage contestants for Cinco de Mayo queen said on an English-language Rupert radio station the other day. "Que si se puede. Yes, you can do it."

Whoever is elected queen will become an instant town celebrity. First she'll sit in a float for the Cinco de Mayo parade. Then she'll tour the elementary schools, giving inspirational speeches. Strangers will recognize her when she shops at the local Wal-Mart.

Belen Lopez, 17, hopes to be that lucky young woman. Her farm worker parents were at first reluctant to allow her to run because they thought it would cost too much money. But in the end they relented. "My aunt is making my dress for me," Lopez says. "The whole family is helping out."

Farm worker families such as Lopez's have been coming to southern Idaho since the 1940s to harvest and process the region's potato, beet and bean crops. Only in recent years, however, have large numbers settled permanently. Latinos now make up about a third of the year-round population in Rupert and about half during the peak of the farm season.

After staging a small Cinco de Mayo celebration last year, a group of Latino community leaders decided they would "do it right" this year and hold their first parade. They've enlisted the services of a mariachi band from Salt Lake City and a group of folklorico dancers from Idaho State University. But otherwise the event will be entirely home-grown.

"We want to show people we're here to stay," says Pete M. Espinoza, a school administrator who is chairman of Rupert's Cinco de Mayo committee. "We want to show that cultural values are important and that they need to be embraced and maintained by the Hispanic community."

Although a few white residents of Rupert are not too keen on celebrating a Mexican holiday, most of the town seems to be behind the event. Organizers are hoping to draw about 1,000 people for the parade, which will consist of about 15 entries. Local businesses have contributed up to $100 each to help cover expenses.

The contingent of charros will be led by Antonio Carrillo, 27. With his rough, cinnamon skin and piercing green eyes, Carrillo looks every bit the role of a Mexican cowboy. He's worked with horses since he was a child growing up in Jerez, Zacatecas. Now he lives in a trailer next to his boss' horse farm.

"The thing I miss the most about Mexico is the charro competitions," he says. Charreria is akin to American rodeo but is distinctly Mexican. "Here in Idaho the pay is nice and life is good. But, unfortunately, there aren't too many charros."

For the parade, Carrillo will saddle up a horse and do a series of tricks in the charro tradition, including one known as "the rope flower" (flor de soga) in which he spins and then jumps through a giant loop.

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