Cinco de Mayo celebrates history, culture

Denver is home to one of the largest festivals in the country


Margaritas. Sombreros. Cervezas. Tequila.

Across cities and college campuses in the United States, these tend to be the staples of Cinco de Mayo. Popular Mexican American restaurants and rooftop bars in the Denver metro area typically overflow on this party holiday.

This year Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of May, falls on a Sunday. Aside from the fun it brings, the holiday is rich with history, a celebration of triumph and culture.

For Andrea Barela — who heads the largest two-day Cinco de Mayo celebration in the state, held May 4 and 5 this year — it’s a weekend for cultures to blend. In today’s political climate, she explains, that can otherwise be a challenge.

“With the turmoil and racism our country is experiencing, this is the weekend we forget all of that and come together as a community to celebrate,” said Barela, the president of NEWSED Community Development, which promotes economic success of underserved populations in the Denver metro area. “These are cultural events, they are significant and they should be maintained.”


Cinco de Mayo — sometimes mistaken for Mexico’s Independence Day — is celebrated by a population of residents in the Mexican state of Puebla, southeast of Mexico City.

The day honors May 5, 1862, when the Mexican Army defeated European invaders at the Battle of Puebla. The triumph was unexpected — Texas-born General Ignacio Zaragoza led the outnumbered and poorly supplied Mexicans, according to the History Channel. Nonetheless they triumphed and maintained their land.

Cinco de Mayo traditions in Puebla include military parades, recreations of the battle and other festive events.

But because it isn’t a federal holiday, Cinco de Mayo is just like any other day for many Mexicans.

“Puebla is actually the only place in Mexico that celebrates this day,” said Highlands Ranch resident Lola Wiarco Dweck, who is of Mexican heritage, adding, “and in the U.S., it’s a holiday that’s observed more by Mexican-Americans and Americans than Mexicans.”

Dweck was raised in California. Growing up, her family didn’t celebrate the holiday but she did perform ballet folklórico at some Cinco de Mayo festivals in Los Angeles, she said.

Today Dweck, a professional chef, celebrates by making foods that commemorate the colors of the Mexican flag: red, white and green, and cooking mole poblano, one of Puebla’s best-known dishes.

“It’s definitely become more mainstream, although I don’t think many Americans know the significance of the holiday,” Dweck said of Cinco de Mayo. “To those who celebrate, it’s a reason to get together, eat Mexican food, and drink beer and tequila.” 

A celebration of culture

In the 1960s, Mexican-American activists — who identified with the indigenous Mexicans who defeated the French Empire in the Battle of Puebla — raised awareness of the holiday, the History Channel reports. In areas with large Mexican-American populations, the holiday would mark a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage.

In 1987, Denver’s first Cinco de Mayo festival took place in the La Alma-Lincoln Park neighborhood, off Santa Fe Drive. Until recently, nearly 90 percent of the neighborhood’s population was Hispanic, according to Barela, whose mother helped start the festival.

“It really started as a street event made to highlight the Santa Fe corridor and the west Denver neighborhood, to boost economic development,” Barela said. “It became very popular very quickly.”

It became so popular that it outgrew its original location and moved to Civic Center Park, near the Colorado Capitol in downtown Denver. One of the largest in the nation, Denver’s Cinco de Mayo festival attracts about 400,000 people a year, depending on the weather.

The two-day extravaganza features three stages — one with bands from Mexico, one with local bands and one featuring dancers — more than 200 vendors, a parade, Chihuahua races, kids’ activities, folklórico dancers and a low-rider car show — what Barela calls a Chicano tradition.

“It’s so cultural,” Barela said of the festival, “that it’s like visiting Mexico in the city of Denver for a weekend.”


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