Monday, May 5, 2003

U.S. embraces Cinco de Mayo



By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When Gary Rodriguez was a boy in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potos̀, "Cinco de Mayo" - May 5th - was low-key.

He remembers a little extra show of patriotism, a lesson on the holiday's history and a dance performance at his school.

"Cinco de Mayo was just a day where we remembered the Battle of Puebla," he said. "It was not a big celebration."

Now, as owner of a Mexican restaurant in West Chester Township, Rodriguez has a different point of view.

"Cinco de Mayo is a big business day," he said.

Rodriguez, who has owned Amigo's Restaurante and Cantina on Cincinnati-Dayton Road for 11 years, said the holiday in Greater Cincinnati and across the United States has become a larger celebration than it was in his homeland, particularly during the past four or five years.

Rodriguez said he had just returned from a trip to Mexico, where he was told that increased U.S. attention on Cinco de Mayo has encouraged hotels and restaurants in Mexico to make a bigger deal of the holiday than they once did.

"More Americans are going there at this time of year, and that's what they expect," Rodriguez said. "It's more commercialized."

For many Americans, Cinco de Mayo serves as just another excuse to party, a fiesta filling the void between St. Patrick's Day and Memorial Day. But the holiday also can provide a taste of cultural education, says Laureen Niehaus-Beckner, 42, of Monfort Heights.

Her brief description of the roots of Cinco de Mayo: "It was when the Mexicans 'invited' the French to leave."

That's much more accurate than the well-meaning but mistaken "Happy Mexican Independence Day!" greetings that Rodriguez typically hears from his restaurant's Cinco de Mayo customers. Rodriguez said he gently explains to them that the Mexican equivalent of the American July 4th is celebrated Sept. 16, but Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of an outnumbered Mexican Army's victory over French troops in Puebla, east of Mexico City, in 1862.

Director of development for Santa Maria Community Services Inc., Niehaus-Beckner said her organization's "Cinco de Mayo Celebration Dance" Friday night proved popular.

"This is our first year, and we were almost overwhelmed with the response," she said Friday afternoon, with 173 reservations made for the $30-per-ticket fund-raiser at Purcell Marian High School in East Walnut Hills. The money will support Bienestar, a program that helps Hispanics with health care and education.

"For us, this event has a lot to do with cultural awareness. We want everyone to feel welcome to attend," she said.

Niehaus-Beckner said she expected "a blending of Hispanic and non-Hispanic" attendees at the dance - and she predicts Cinco de Mayo and similar events will continue to grow along with Greater Cincinnati's rapidly growing Hispanic/Latino population.

E-mail jmorse@enquirer.com




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