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The Flowering of Cinco de Mayo

Area schools with large Latino student bodies have taken to the joyful Mexican holiday in a big way.

May 06, 2003|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

For many adults, Cinco de Mayo has become a good excuse to guzzle frosted margaritas and beer. But for thousands of children and their parents, it has emerged as the most celebrated holiday of the school year, surpassing even the time-honored winter program and the Halloween parade.

In Duarte, in Lynwood, in elementary schools with large Latino populations throughout Los Angeles, children in red, white and green dance, sing, write essays and reenact a historic Mexican battle in mega-productions that unfold with a pageantry and audience size unparalleled through the rest of the school year.

"I would say it's taken on a life of its own, which is a very good thing," said Elise Sullivan, a Los Angeles Unified School District administrator serving a cluster of schools on the Eastside. "It's an opportunity to celebrate culture that is not within the context of a religious or political realm."

The scene at Betty Plasencia Elementary School near downtown Los Angeles typified the pageantry of the holiday. No child on the 1,100-student, 95% Latino campus was left on the sidelines during an afternoon of folklorico dancing, skits and music.

"It's our greatest attraction of the year and has grown into a very much looked-forward-to event," said Principal Berta Cochario of their event last Friday.

Hundreds of parents arrived nearly half an hour before showtime, pressing against the schoolyard gate, cameras in hand. Cochario, clasping her script, surveyed the more than 2,000 parents and students assembled on the playground.

"Bienvenidos todos!" she shouted. Welcome everyone!

"If I could sell tickets to this, we would make a lot of money," she joked. A fourth-grade class built a tall cardboard fort to reenact the Battle of Puebla, where outgunned Mexican troops defeated occupying French forces on May 5, 1862.

"The kids are learning about history, our background," said Oscar Salas, 26, the father of a second-grader. "This is their chance to learn that we are a strong people and we didn't let ourselves get taken down by a foreign army."

As Salas and other parents cheered, the students used tall pieces of rolled-up black construction paper as rifles and shot at the French soldiers, who fled off the playground in humiliation.

With its David vs. Goliath message, educators consider Cinco de Mayo safe to celebrate. It skirts the religious and cultural controversies that can be provoked by performing a skit featuring Mary and the baby Jesus or probing the journey of Christopher Columbus. Halloween pageants can also offend, sometimes prompting denunciations of witchcraft.

And with the holiday falling as it does on the fifth of May, teachers have plenty of time to prepare, and the daylight and warmth of springtime in Southern California make for a perfect backdrop for a big playground assembly.

The Cinco de Mayo program has taken hold primarily in elementary schools with large Mexican immigrant populations, campuses where more than 80% of the students are Latino.

"Our program keeps getting bigger and bigger," said teacher Elva Flores, who has organized the event at Eastman Elementary on the Eastside, a campus where 99% of the 1,500 students are Latino, mainly of Mexican descent. It's the one school event, she said, that immigrant parents feel comfortable participating in and is the PTA's biggest fund-raiser, with sales of nachos, corn and fresh fruit.

The Cinco de Mayo school program is yet another chapter in the evolution of an Americanized holiday.

The minor Mexican holiday was popularized in the 1960s and '70s as an emblem of Chicano pride, a symbol of overcoming great odds.

Recently, many activists and academics have complained that the day became too focused on drinking parties. But in Cinco de Mayo, educators have found an opportunity to impart a history lesson (it's not Mexican Independence Day), honor the culture of their students, teach some music and dance and, perhaps most important, bring parents onto campus.

One former principal said that so many parents attended El Sereno Elementary School's Cinco de Mayo event that he set up recruitment tables to sign them up for family math night, science day and tutoring.

"It was the one day we could really connect to parents," said Corby Alsbrook, the former principal and now an administrator in the Los Angeles Unified School District. "It was the school's way of saying, 'We honor you and want you to be a part of what we are doing too.' "

The Cinco de Mayo lesson plan has evolved on its own, in part because of the ingenuity and experience of parents and teachers. It is not a part of the mandated state curriculum, like American holidays such as Thanksgiving, Presidents Day and the Fourth of July.

Behind every school with an elaborate program is a parent or teacher who can sew a dress, make red paper flower hair decorations or do the jarabe tapatio -- the Mexican hat dance.

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