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Cinco de Mayo festival honors "familia" over frivolity

By Aldrich M. Tan

May 6, 2006

The Aztec dancer Lansante smiled gracefully on stage as Daniel Bennett, 5, danced for the city's Cinco de Mayo festival at the Parque de los Niños on 24th Street, between Treat and Folsom Streets.

Wearing a white cotton shirt and blue jeans and dancing like a mini professional breakdancer, Bennett was among the many youth who performed on stage at the Cinco de Mayo celebration "Goooal Mexico!"

The kids' performance is what Cinco de Mayo is really about, said Roberto Hernandez, festival artistic director. Contrary to popular belief, Cinco de Mayo is neither about margaritas nor Mexican Independence Day, which is on September 16.

Instead, the festival honors the day when a small group of Mexicans defeated the French Army at Puebla, Mexico on May 5, 1862, Hernandez said. The historical event has political ties to the immigration rights rally that took place on May 1, 2006.

"It's a day when the minority stood up against the majority," Hernandez said. "Just like when we stood up against the government for deporting immigrants. The smallest person can make the largest difference."

Bennett, is one of the many children participating in the eight centers of the Mission Head Start program for the Mission Neighborhood Inc. who performed on stage, said Stephanie Martinez, director of Children Services at Mission Head Start. The program prepares preschool youth ages 3 to 5 in the Mission district for entering kindergarten.

"It's challenging for four-year-olds to go on stage and perform so we let the kids decide if they want to perform," Martinez said. "As you can see, many of them chose to perform."

The dance performance is part of the curriculum, said Daria Espinosa, spokesperson for the Mission Bay Head Start program at the Mission Bay Center which breakdancer Bennett attends. The Mission Bay program let the kids make up their moves.

Beaming father Warren Bennett, 30, said Daniel watches his 9-year-old brother dance to hip-hop.

"I'm so proud of my boy," said Warren Bennett, a janitor at the St. Mary's Medical Center.

Tracy Booker, associate teacher for the Bernal Dwellings Center Head Start program, said the performances are also educational. The 20 children in her class performed "la canción de las vocales," the vowel song in Spanish.

"As an African American, it's so great for me to learn about Latino culture and give these kids a head start in life," Booker said.

Mayor Gavin Newsom showed up as the kids, their families and staff gathered at the nearby playground for a potluck fiesta at noon. Many of the youth enthusiastically wanted to meet the mayor.

"It's great being here, especially to see all these kids!" Newsom said.

Newsom found himself kneeling many times as proud families photographed their kids with the mayor.

"This is a city that recognizes its greatest strength is its diversity." Newsom said. "On a day like today, I am proud to be mayor and be here celebrating the struggles of the Latino community."

Outside of the park, vendors booths covered 24th Street, between Folsom and Treat Streets. The city's Cinco De Mayo brings festival in an average of 10,000 people and 30 vendors annually, Hernandez said.

"It's an opportunity for us to bring the organizations that provide services to the Latino community," Hernandez said.

The most popular booth at the festival was the California Latino 5 a Day Campaign booth. Inquisitive mothers waited in long lines to spin a colorful wheel full of healthy fruits and vegetables, in both English and Spanish, and receive advice from bilingual health advocates.

"Come frutas y vegetales y disfruta de actividades fisicas cada da," program director Pamela Harter said to each participant. "Eat fruits and vegetables and enjoy physical exercise every day."

Sponsored by the California Department of Health Services, the campaign promotes healthier lifestyles for the state's Latino community, Harter said. 60 percent of Latinos in California report poor to fair health because of poor diet and lack of exercise, placing themselves at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

"Most people in the line right now do not speak any English," Harter said. "This is a very important community that would not be getting this valuable information if we weren't here."

Each booth visitor received a bag which included recipes for healthier versions of Latino cuisine, Harter said. The booth gave away 700 to 800 bags to families in the community.

While their parents learned about healthy eating habits, the children played at the playgrounds and participated at the Bay Area Discovery Museum's arts booth.

At the booth, the kids produced "milagros" (miracles) with construction paper, glue and colorful crystals, said Patricia Munrio, communications and creative services manager for the Sausalito-based museum. The kids write their wishes and miracles that they are thankful for on white strips of paper which they attached to their milagros.

Munrio picks up one milagro which says "no hay luvia"- there is no rain. Jacki, 3, said she is thankful for the color pink and shows her milagro, a red cardboard paper cutout with sparkling pink crystals.

"It encourages the kids to express themselves," Munrio said.

Political expression was a key theme for this year's festival. Richard Hansen and his wife Shirley, members of the Richmond Democratic Club, traveled through the festival grounds with voter registration forms.

The organization has registered over 1,000 new voters in the last two years, Richard Hansen said. They registered 100 voters at Carnaval San Francisco, another event sponsored by the Mission Neighborhood Centers, Inc.

"Voting gives these people power to control the leadership of the community and bring the ideas of democracy back to the people," Shirley Hansen said.

Arturo Cosenza, Spanish outreach coordinator for the San Francisco Department of Elections, said registering people in the community can be a challenge. Many of the festival participants could be undocumented immigrants or registered U.S. citizens. Several of the individuals who did register early morning were citizens changing their addresses.

"It really depends on how they feel about politics," Cosenza said, "but we'll keep trying."

Motivated by the recent immigrant rights rallies, Hernandez said the community is growing concerned about national issues and finding their voice. He was thrilled with the large turnout for both the Cinco de Mayo fiesta and the Uno de Mayo rally.

"It's a dream come true to see the Latino immigrant community rise up," Hernandez said.

"We're going to vote in mass numbers in the next election and we will be heard."

Five years ago, the Cinco de Mayo festival took place at Civic Center, Hernandez said. However, Mission Neighborhood Centers Inc. decided to move the festival because of expenses, amongst other reasons.

"The community wanted the festival back in their neighborhood," Hernandez said.




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