By Ekevara Kitpowsong
Mid-day salsa dancing on San Francisco’s Valencia Street?
What better place to celebrate this year’s “Cinco de Mayo” — one of the City’s most treasured traditions.
The festival is usually held in Dolores Park, but the park is currently under construction so in the last two years three blocks on Valencia Street became the alternative site.
“The change in venue from Mission Dolores Park to Valencia Street has been welcomed by many, including Valencia Merchants, as it has allowed the Mission Neighborhood Centers to produce a family-friendly, alcohol-free, cultural celebration in the heart of the Mission,” Maria Bermudez, MNC operations director, said. “We have been able to bring cultural enrichment to our changing community and attract many more families to our cultural celebration than at Dolores Park.”
The celebration took place on May 2 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. It showcased food, music, dance performances, and many activities for families and young children.
The day itself symbolized unity and pride for Mexican heritage. “Cinco de Mayo” is a holiday observed to honor the Mexican army’s victory over the French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
Hundreds of people filled Valencia Street between 21st and 24th streets to enjoy rich cultural experiences of Mexico and other Latin American countries.
Not just the residents from the Mission neighborhood turned out and joined the 11th annual Cinco de Mayo celebration, but residents from other districts and visitors from other cities in the Bay Area attended the festival.
City College English student Monica Guarneros and her five-year-old son Isaac Meza visited the festival for the first time. “It’s fun for family,” Mission resident Guarneros said, while her son was waiting for a balloon art from Pippi The Clown at the Kid’s Zone sponsored by Mission Neighborhood Centers.
“I had a wonderful time, I really enjoyed it. People were great. Of course, I missed Dolores Park, but it’s fun to be on the street,” Pippi The Clown, a.k.a. Jeanne Thomas said, who for five years has been entertaining young children during the festival with balloon art and magic tricks.
“I think it is very important to have everybody come together and celebrate as a group. It has a real identity of the neighborhood and also of the whole Mission District,” Thomas said. “People are excited and feel that they belong to the community more; I think this kind of event goes a long way in establishing that.”
The main stage on the corner of Valencia Street and 24th streets featured talented music and dance performers. They included Germán Contreras, a nine-year-old Mariachi singer from Puebla, Mexico, Ensambles Ballet Folklórico de San Francisco who performed traditional Mexican dances, and Adelante, a Mission-based band who entertained the crowd with salsa and Latin Jazz music.
On the corner of Valencia and 21st streets, christened “Community Entertainment Corner,” local performers, such as Solera Singers, a choir with more than 30 members aged 55 years and older, performed folk songs in Spanish from Mexico and Latin America. The group grew out of a partnership between the San Francisco Community Music Center and the Mission Neighborhood Centers.
“I have been here a few times…I love feeling the passion that everyone around me feels, I love when we have a chance to come all together and express the love for our neighborhood,” said Nicaraguan-born Oscar Pulma, who is a former City College journalism student and an Inner Richmond resident.
Besides enjoying music and dance performances, many attendees visited small local shops, bars, restaurants and corner stores along the street to purchase merchandise, drinks, food, beverages and snacks.
Leila Mansur, the co-owner of Radio Habana Social Club, a Cuban bar that has a 16-year history on Valencia Street, said the festival is important to the Mission Community.
“Cinco de Mayo has been desperately needed by the community that has been invaded by people that have no respect or understanding of the people that they are stepping on and displacing,” she said. “New Valencia Street merchants couldn’t see the value of celebrating Cinco de Mayo in the community in which they are making their big money and paying their big rent. We have to fight for it. Everybody has to write letters for it. If there was ever a time that we needed a celebration of who we are and showing that this is a community, it was now, but it took a struggle; people had to fight for it.”
Attendees also enjoyed diverse food, and arts and crafts merchandise from more than 65 vendors.
As for next year, Pulma added: “I want to see my people back. I just don’t talk about Latino. I don’t care about races when I say my people. I say the people who love the city, who love keeping the city just the way it always has been, and to keep all this things going on — that’s what I want to see. I want to see my neighborhood back– that’s what I want to see next year.”
“The next Cinco de Mayo will be even stronger. If we have to fight for it, we will,” Mansur said.