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Cinco de Mayo celebrates Mexican culture, traditions

A group of Aztec dancers dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Mexican/Aztec culture performs during the 2012 Cinco de Mayo celebration in Willmar. Other attractions for the family friendly event included a jalapeno eating contest, the Willmar Idol singing contest and folkloric dancers. Unfortunately, there is no organized celebration in Willmar this year; however, several local establishments are hosting Cinco de Mayo events. Tribune file photo by Ron Adams1 / 3
Aztec dancers are dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the Mexican/Aztec culture as they perform during the 2012 Cinco de Mayo celebration in Willmar. Tribune file photo by Ron Adams2 / 3
Jamie Perez, left, and Alicya Perez-Wertz have fun at the craft table during the 2012 Cinco de Mayo celebration. 3 / 3

If Cinco de Mayo conjures images of mariachi, tamales and sombreros, you're not alone. In the United States, the Mexican holiday has become as much of a celebration as Mardi Gras or St. Patrick's Day.

But for many Americans who plan to eat enchiladas and sip cervezas on Cinco de Mayo, the history and significance of the holiday is still largely a mystery.

Many people commonly mistake Cinco de Mayo to be Mexico's Independence Day, which is actually commemorated in September. Rather, Cinco de Mayo celebrates the country's win against an invading French army on May 5, 1862.

In a true David-Goliath fashion, Mexican President Benito Juárez's small and inexperienced army defeated a much larger and stronger French army in Puebla, a small town near Mexico City. Although the Battle of Puebla victory did not solidify Mexico's win over France at the time, it was considered a symbolic victory for the country.

"They won a war they were supposed to lose," said Kristen Valdez, Spanish teacher at the Willmar Middle School. "They were the underdogs, but they believed in something and fought for it anyway. I think that's why the story resonates so strongly with people."

Today, people across Mexico and the United States celebrate Cinco de Mayo with parades, music, dancing and traditional Mexican food.

Javier Valenzuela, who lives in Willmar but grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, says that Cinco de Mayo is actually more celebrated in the United States than in his home country.

"Cinco de Mayo celebrations are done on a much bigger scale in the U.S. than in Mexico," said Valenzuela, a personal banker at Bremer Bank. "In Mexico, it's celebrated with a small parade. For me, it wasn't a tradition we did every year."

Along with a parade, there are also reenactments of the Battle of Puebla. Those portraying the French soldiers wear "peacock hats and flamboyant outfits," Valenzuela said.

In the United States, festivities tend to focus less on the historic lessons of Cinco de Mayo and more on the "celebration" part.

"It's definitely a bit commercialized here," Valenzuela said. "But that's not a bad thing. It brings people together and it's a good way to start a discussion about cultural differences. I think it's a good thing to celebrate, whether it's commercialized or not."

Arturo Becerra Carmona, who moved to Willmar from Querétaro, Mexico, three years ago, says that before he came to the United States, he had no idea that Americans even celebrated Cinco de Mayo.

"I didn't know it was that important here," said Becerra Carmona, who plans to move back to Mexico someday. "In Mexico, it's not a big holiday. People know what it is, but they may not even know the idea behind it."

Growing up, children are taught the story of the Battle of Puebla, or Batalla de Puebla as the day is called in Mexico. But it's one of those history lessons that's soon forgotten after exams are over, Becerra Carmona said.

Still, Cinco de Mayo symbolizes a sense of national pride that he can identify with strongly.

"On Cinco de Mayo, we want to feel that we are part of something. We want to know who we are," he said. "It's important to feel that pride and sense of community."

For non-Latinos, Cinco de Mayo has become a way to learn about the culture and traditions of another country, Valdez said.

"It's a fun way to be exposed to another culture's history," she said. "It opens our eyes and our doors to another culture and their traditions. It's a great holiday to be celebrated and embraced by anyone, even if the reason why it's celebrated is usually unknown."

No Cinco de Mayo celebration in Willmar this year

For the past six years, Willmar has hosted a Cinco de Mayo celebration. This year, there won't be a community event, said Javier Valenzuela, who has organized the event in the past.

"We didn't have enough volunteers and organizers this year," he said. "We only had three people on the committee, and it became too much for us."

In years past, anywhere from 1,000 to 3,500 people have come out for the annual celebration, Valenzuela said. Last year was the most diverse attendance they've ever had at the event.

Valenzuela said he's had many people in the community ask him why there's no event this year. He encourages people to volunteer and help plan an event for next year.

"I wish we could've done it this year," Valenzuela said. "Trust me, I'm more disappointed than anyone. When we can do a celebration, it's a great way to bring people together and learn about each other."

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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