Among the crowd gathered around the south end stage on 24th and Valencia streets Saturday, three bleary-eyed teens in multicolored ponchos, sombreros and fake mustaches swayed their arms and hips to the live music playing at the Mission Neighborhood Center’s annual Cinco de Mayo festival.
Erick Arguello, who has been living in the Mission for 52 years, shook his head at the intoxicated bunch.
“Cinco de Mayo is a day of remembrance and cultural pride,” Arguello said. “People died in the battle of Puebla to overcome the French. It’s really upsetting to see people making a joke of our national heritage.”
Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday that commemorates the unlikely victory over the French forces that occupied the city of Puebla in 1862 during the French intervention in Mexico, according to Nancy Charraga, owner of Mexican goods store Casa Bonampak on Valencia and 22nd streets.
The historical association with the Battle of Puebla is generally overlooked by many of those who visit the Mission for Cinco de Mayo, Charraga said.
“People take advantage of Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to get drunk and pretend to be Mexican for a day,” Charraga said. “Mexicans are a festive people, we love to celebrate. But people often miss the cultural significance of the occasion.”
As a person of Mexican descent born in California, Movemento Estadiantil Chicano de Aztlán member Julia Hernandez said she was not taught the origins of Cinco de Mayo until later in her life. She said she learned the holiday was politicized because of the Chicano movement in the 1960s as a way for Mexican-Americans to break free from assimilation. Many new immigrants recognized their struggle against dominant culture and colonialism, like the people of Puebla’s struggle against the French, Hernandez said.
“It’s kind of ironic,” Hernandez said. “Cinco de Mayo is a holiday intended to bring about Mexican consciousness, but instead it’s become about how much you can drink until you’re unconscious.”
In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is observed in Puebla more so than anywhere else in the country, according to Charraga. The holiday has been widely popularized in the U.S. by Mexican-Americans with festivities that encourage the Latin community through traditional music, dance and food.
In turn, the U.S.’s advertising industry has misappropriated the holiday and commercialized it for beer sales and a source of entertainment, Charraga said.
“Last year I was in the Mission and I saw several people dressed in costumes as an avocado, onion and tomato,” Hernandez said. “I was like, ‘Why are you doing that?’ What does that have to do with anything?’ It was incredibly offensive.”
Dolores Terrazas, children services division director at MNC said she sees their Cinco de Mayo event as an opportunity for the neighborhood to share in a vibrant celebration of culture and community.
“We don’t expect a huge crowd,” Terrazas said. “We do it more for the neighborhood, to inculcate the richness of our culture.”
MNC geared the event toward families by prohibiting alcohol and incorporating clowns, balloonists, games and other activities for children. Many of the acts that performed on both the north and south stages included young performers, like a band from the Community Music Center and 9-year-old mariachi singer German Contreras from Puebla, Mexico.
“It’s a family friendly event for Mexicano people of all ages to gravitate towards something familiar and take comfort in their culture,” Terrazas said. “Immigration can be an isolating experience so our goal is to address diaspora and support youth, young people and seniors in building connections within the community.”
To celebrate Cinco de Mayo on campus, SF State’s Hermanos Unidos hosted an event Tuesday in Malcolm X Plaza.
Destiny Rivas dances with Ballet Folklórico Alma de México, a class at South San Francisco High School. Rivas said she was enthusiastic about participating in a cultural event for Cinco de Mayo.
“I think it’s really cool,” Rivas said. “I’m not Mexican and experiencing it is really cool and fun for my Salvadorian culture.”
Cinco de Mayo’s festivities provide an opportunity for people to come together and take pride in Latin heritage, according to Martin Cruz, director of Folklórico Alma de México.
“It’s not a big holiday in Mexico, but here it is,” Cruz said. “As long as everyone gets the facts correct it’s a good way to bring the Latino community together.”