Fact check, then … ¡fiesta!
Cinco do Mayo isn’t really Mexican Independence Day; it’s a holiday to commemorate a small town’s battle. But that doesn’t stop a Chicano low-rider club or Latina hip-hop dancers (or the rest of us) from celebrating.
Ever wonder what Cinco de Mayo is all about besides mariachi and Corona beer? Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not Mexican Independence Day.
The holiday was enacted to celebrate the 1862 battle between the small town of Puebla, near Mexico City, and the French, who were trying to collect on debts from war-ravaged Mexico. This was decades after the country won independence from Spain in 1810.
These days in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated primarily in Puebla, but Dr. Daniel Enrique Pérez, assistant professor of Chicano/Latino studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, says that in the United States, “It’s one of those holidays that has been very commercialized and appropriated, primarily by beer companies, to capitalize off of [the battle.]”
“Even if [everyone thinks] that it’s Mexican Independence Day, I think people use it as a general holiday to celebrate anything to do with Mexican culture,” says Pérez.
Independence Day is Sept. 16. Pérez says the reasons we don’t celebrate that holiday so fervently north of the border are probably practicalities. May is a good time for a holiday, he says, “[and] Cinco de Mayo is much easier to say than Dieciséis de Septiembre. I think people in the United States, not just Latinos but even English-speaking people, are kind of hungry for a Latino holiday of sorts.
“Maybe it’s nice that we set aside a day or two to commemorate Latino people in general and celebrate something like this in general, but I still have my gripes about it.” He’d like to see Dieciséis de Septiembre get its due.
Meanwhile, this weekend, May 6-8, Reno plans to celebrate all things Chicano and Latino, with everything from traditional ballet folklórico to film to the elaborately fetishized Chicano-expression machine, the low-rider. Plus just about everything in between.
The RN&R checked in with two local go-getters as they prepare for the festivities and found way more than just mariachi and Corona beer.
Low rider with a mission
A shiny, cherry-red ‘62 Impala convertible with low-rider rims waits at the A&W parking lot on Plumb Lane. Tony Castellanos, with crew cut, mustache and tattooed arms, stands near his car and talks fast. He has to be somewhere in a minute. Castellanos has three kids and two jobs; he’s the maintenance supervisor at the University Family Fellowship and a youth pastor at Reno Central City Church. Somewhere in his barely existent free time, he finds time to head up the Revelation Christian Car Club.
The car club loves its cars, but it doesn’t stop there. Castellanos is a man with a mission. Surrounding the Impala is an assortment of lavishly customized low-rider bicycles and their teenage and pre-teen owners. The bikes, built by the kids with Castellanos’ guidance, are mostly old Schwinns restored to better-than-new. They’re fully decked out with pillowed banana seats, silver fringe, red-velvet handlebar grips, luscious, deep-gold or rust-orange paint jobs and lots of polished chrome.
Castellanos sees the bikes and cars as a way to communicate a positive message to teens who haven’t always stayed on the shiny side of the law. His theory is that if kids get first-hand experience with the dollars and hours that laboring on their low riders requires, they’ll think twice about other people’s property.
“When they build these bikes, it teaches them respect,” he says.
As he talks, Castellanos surveys the parking lot, keeping an eye on the kids, and he’s a little distracted because he’s late for an engagement. There’s no question he’s got a chockful plate.
“It’s hard to stay focused and do this,” he explains. “But I just look at the value, and I look at what I came out of … and I’m thankful for where I’m at today.”
And he’s really thankful about where he’ll be this weekend, right in his element, showing off cars and bikes with adults and teens from the car club.
Dancing to reggaetón
On a Friday afternoon, the Neil Road Recreation Center is hopping. Spirited rock en español plays from a boom box on a small stage. Shouts and sneaker-squeaks of teenage boys playing basketball bounce around and fill the cavernous gym.
A few teenage girls are on the stage practicing MTV-flavored moves with self-consciousness and giddy enthusiasm in front of the new mirror. (Before the new mirror, they’d wait till dark and practice, watching their reflections in a large window.) They turn, they sway, they do a salsa step, they bend and sit and slap the floor once to signify a break in the music. About 10 minutes into warming up, they’re absorbed in a confident groove.
Petite, curly-haired Monce Pérez arrives every weekday after working nine hours at a law firm. Her second job as a dance instructor doesn’t pay a cent, but Pérez, who’s been dancing most of her 27 years, has been teaching at the rec center since it opened six years ago. Her class is mostly Hispanic girls from ages 8-19, but she welcomes anybody— even grown-ups and boys.
The girls are dancing to reggaetón, the party music imported from Puerto Rico that they listen to on the radio.
“It’s reggae with Spanish flavor mixed with salsa,” Perez says. It’s also a youthful fusion of rock and brightened-up-but-still-aggressive hip-hop with traces of jazz and the occasional riff of traditional Latin brass.
It meshes with Pérez’s collaborative approach to choreography.
“What I encourage them to do is to kind of use their creativity, and then everybody puts part of themselves in it, and that way they feel like part of the project,” says Pérez. “I try to teach them basically to work with each other, to work as a group and set goals.”
Originally, for Pérez, volunteering at the rec center was all about the dancing. But she soon saw an opportunity to communicate a few things to teens. She says dancing teaches the students not just the hottest moves, but also skills that will benefit them off the dance floor.
“Every one of these girls gets along with everybody because I encourage them to get to know people,” she says. “You never know, someone you thought you’d never be friends with ends up being your best friend. When they go out in the workforce, they’re able to communicate with all kinds of people and not judge them. It does build up their self-esteem and their confidence, and they feel like they can do anything.”