A slice of Mexico

A slice of Mexico

Celebrating battles

A slice of Mexico

With Mexican dancers, ‘mariachi’ bands and tacos, the festival of Cinco de Mayo in Los Angeles is a rush of colours, music and food. Deepa Padmanaban gets a glimpse of Mexico in this quaint American city

The green, white and red of the Mexican flag fluttered at every corner. The street, packed with endless rows of stalls, played host to a sea of people segueing together under the cerulean spring sky. The smell of frying tacos wafted through the air, as the chilly coastal breeze had me reach for my jacket. The sonorous sounds of violin and guitar drew my attention to the main plaza, a circular area with a large gazebo at its centre, and I found myself in the midst of Mexican frenzy as fervent organisers chatted and announced the events in Spanish.

I wasn’t in Mexico, but in downtown Los Angeles (LA) for the Mexican festival of Cinco de Mayo. I had just landed in LA with my family for the summer, and jet-lag soon gave way to excitement as visions of tacos, burritos and margaritas swirled around my mind. Chaperoned by our local cousins, my family and I drove to Olvera Street in downtown LA for the Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

Festive fervour

Cinco de Mayo, literally meaning the 5th of May, is a celebration of the unexpected victory of the Mexican Armed Forces over the French Army at the Battle of Peubla during the Franco-Mexican War between 1862 and 1868. While it is celebrated in a few parts of Mexico, primarily in the Puebla region, it has gained popularity in the US as a celebration of Mexican tradition. With Los Angeles lying just 240 km north of the Mexican border, it is unsurprisingly the location of the most fervent celebrations.

The city of LA was officially founded on September 4, 1781 on Olvera Street by a small group of Mexican settlers. Whilst there is some controversy about its original name centered around whether it was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles (The Town of Our Lady Queen of the Angels), or El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (The Town of the Queen of Angels), it has come to be known just as Los Angeles. Even the location of the celebrations, Olvera Street, was known as Vino Street before being renamed in honour of the first Superior Court judge, Augustin Olvera.

In the gazebo, on an elevated platform, little girls, around six to nine years of age, wore colourful dance costumes with a variety of flowers tucked in their hair. They performed a Mexican dance known as the Folklorico, that involved the lifting and twirling of their highly ruffled skirts up to their shoulders whilst stomping heeled shoes in rhythm to the mariachi music blaring through the microphones. Eager parents hoisted toddlers on their shoulders, as youngsters hugged the pedestalled statue of the Spanish Governor of California, Felipe de Neve, to get a better view. Sombrero-adorned men and I-pad toting tourists stood watching in rapt attention. I too stood mesmerised by the dance, the costume, and the furious footwork that belied the nervous looks on the faces of the young dancers.

Bigger crowds were gathering in the adjacent area, swaying to the sounds of trumpets and clarinets reverberating in what sounded like jazz. A young man standing next to me, Peter Fernandez, a second generation Mexican-American from Orange County, explained that it was a brass-based traditional form of music known as Banda. As I made my way through the gathering to get a glimpse of a band calling themselves La Original Banda el Limon band, I was struck by the silent and orderly nature of the crowd. They stood and moved around with an almost reverent demeanour, making it one of the mellowest street festivals I had ever attended.

Art & culture

We then headed to a long alley dotted with colourful little kiosks that constituted the Mexican marketplace. Mobile candy vendors sold strange-looking sweets with stranger-sounding names such as calabaza (squash candy), biznaga (cactus candy) and chilacayote (watermelon candy). Kiosk vendors, dressed for the occasion in peasant garb, enticed the crowd with embroidered Mexican dresses, wooden maracas, toy guitars, fashionable leather shoes, sombreros, and candles covered with religious images. As we traipsed through the market, moving along the narrow crowded aisle, I struck up a conversation with one of the kiosk vendors, Munelena Rodriguez, a fourth generation Mexican-American. Her family owned a shop that sold silver jewellery, dress accessories and religious articles. Like all other vendors, Munelena too was beaming at the crowds that lapped up her merchandise. I restricted myself to acquiring memories, rather than artefacts, as I did not fancy lugging one home with me.

While the banda musicians kept the crowds captivated outside, mariachi musicians with their guitars and violins crooned to the ladies in the quaint cafes interspersed between the kiosks. It was time for the much-anticipated lunch, and we got into a queue at one such cafe. As our wait and hunger increased exponentially, we munched on churros, a finger-like fried-dough pastry sprinkled with sugar that represented the Spanish version of the American donut, giving us the much-needed sugar fix!

After an hour’s wait, Las Anitas, the café, bestowed upon us a table for our group. ‘On the house’ starters included unlimited nachos with spicy salsa and guacamole dips. The vegetarians, including myself, were restricted to the vegetable stir-fry fajitas, flavourful Mexican rice and red beans. The carnivores amongst us enjoyed a wider selection of choice between the taquitos (diminutive tacos), burritos, and the classic tacos with fish and chicken. Tall glasses of sangria and margaritas with straws vied for our attention. Their after-taste, combined with that of tequila and lime, stayed long after a ‘muy beuno’ ending to a day dedicated to a slice of Mexican culture in Southern California.