Berkeley’s Cinco de Mayo re-done

By Matthew Artz, Daily Planet Staff
Monday May 06, 2002

Berkeley’s annual Cinco de Mayo festival had a new address and a new attitude this year, as organizers chose to shed the holiday’s rollicking party image in favor of a more subdued block party setting. 

The holiday commemorating the Battle of Puebla, in which Mexican fighters defeated an occupying French force in 1862, had been celebrated annually in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park. However this year, local Latino leaders decided to try something new. 

“We are trying to change the focus from a concert venue to a family day,” said Carlos Rios, a festival organizer from the Duran organization, explaining the decision to move the festival to James Kenny Park at 8th and Virginia streets in the heart of Berkeley’s largest Latino neighborhood. 

“The downtown venue was not attracting the local community,” said Rios. “We thought that if we had it in the neighborhood that a larger concentration of Latin people would attend.” 

He was right. The park was filled with local Latino families enjoying food, music, face painting and two giant bubble castles. 

The convenient location and family friendly attitude was appreciated by seemingly everyone at the festival. “I love the family orientation that it has. Over there [civic center park] it seemed to be more of a tourist thing. Here it is for the community,” said Rosalia Wilkins.  

In addition to food and fun, the festival provided free medical services. For the first time the La Raza Health Fair was partnered with the Cinco de Mayo celebration, offering local residents an opportunity to get on-the-spot eye, blood pressure and diabetes exams. 

The health fair, which is usually held independently in April, is organized by the Chicanos Latinos in Health Education (CHE), a UC Berkeley student group that works with volunteers from the UC San Francisco Medical Center and the UC Berkeley School of Public Health to provide health services for local Latinos in need. 

“A lot of men won’t go to the doctor but they will go here because it’s non-threatening,” said Beatriz Leyva Cutler of Bay Area Hispanic Institute for Advancement, an organization that operates two child care centers.  

The health fair is especially important for Latinos because, according to Nirav Kamdar of CHE, 33 percent of adult Latinos have diabetes but most do not know it. We are trying to empower people to be their own doctor,” said Kamdar, who stated that after the Pima Native American tribe, Latinos have the highest risk of diabetes of any ethnic group in the world. 

The new Cinco de Mayo festival was the collaborative work of several different local Latino groups. Adelante, a non-profit Latino organization had sponsored the festival for several years, but after the organization folded last year, Duran, an organization that provides scholarships to Latino students and promotes the arts stepped forward. 

Duran along with BAHIA and CHE pooled their resources to organize this year’s festival, which has included a weakling schedule of educational and cultural events that put a different spin on the holiday. 

“Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity for the community to celebrate itself. A day to celebrate and reflect on everything,” Rios said. 

One item the organizers noticeably decided to leave out was alcohol. Many festival goers expressed mixed reactions about the recent commercialization of the holiday, but were overwhelmingly supportive of the decision to keep the festival dry.  

“Cinco de Mayo has become the Latino version of St. Patrick’s day, said Ricardo Gomez a graduating UC Berkeley senior and member of CHE. “I’m glad there’s a general recognition of the Latino holiday, but it’s gotten co-opted. It going to get commercialized no matter how you do it.”  

Andrea Vargas, who was visiting from Castro Valley, concurred stating that although she thought she could look at the media portrayal in two ways, she considered some of the Cinco de Mayo television commercials degrading. “This event celebrates it the best way we can celebrate it: By bringing good people and families together.” 

Rios considered the new festival an unabashed success, and was already thinking of new activities for children next year. “This year was just an experiment to see if the change would work,” said Rios, who was considering horse rides among other activities. “If we can achieve that children come to the festival and they enjoy it, they will have something to remember Cinco de Mayo by.”