In these parts the biggest Cinco de Mayo festivities are in San Jose, where for the last few years hundreds of thousands of people have packed the streets for a star-studded parade and daylong celebration. But outbreaks of violence and gridlocked streets in recent years forced a cutback that greatly reduced attendance. Now Oakland is starting to garner a reputation as the happening place to commemorate the Battle of Puebla — when a ragged force of Mexican townsfolk defeated the sophisticated army of Napoleon III of France on May 5, 1862.
“Last year, with limited funds, we drew around 65,000 people here,” says Hugo Guerrero, spokesman for the Asociación de Comerciantes y Profesionales de Oakland (Merchants and Professionals Association of Oakland) of last year’s Cinco de Mayo celebration in the largely Mexican Fruitvale District. “They say we beat San Jose in attendance, which is not easy given how much money they spend. We’ve been organizing this event for four years now. We do it to give something back to the community that has supported our businesses.”
Guerrero’s words — through an interpreter — are reflective of a new community spirit brought on in part by the multimillion-dollar Fruitvale Plaza revitalization project, which has added a two-story complex for offices and businesses next to the BART station. Sidewalks are being rebuilt and merchants are encouraged to spruce up their stores along the boulevard. The project is a positive sign for the growing Latino presence in Oakland, a community that now makes up close to a quarter of the city’s population.
“In the last two or three years, the Latino community has doubled in Oakland,” continues Guerrero, owner of Hugo’s Travel on International Boulevard for the last seventeen years. “Many came from the San Francisco Mission District. Yes, there are a lot of homicides, but I think San Francisco is a much more dangerous town than Oakland. There’s this generalization the media makes that we’re the ugly duckling. There’s great potential here, but in these times we have to be cautious. We don’t want to get financially undermined like what happened to many merchants in the Mission.”
In the last nine years, ACPO with its 103 members has helped change the image of the Latino merchant in the eyes of the city. This Sunday, May 4, the organization hosts the “Cinco de Mayo Parade & Festival” on International Boulevard from 35th to 42nd avenues as a symbol of growth. The day’s activities include three stages of music, a children’s pavilion, arts and crafts booths, food stands, and a parade featuring the Fruitvale’s own Banda de Guerra — a military-style marching brass band — that steps off at 11 a.m. from 47th Avenue, concluding on 35th Avenue.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to duplicate the attendance record of last year,” Guerrero observes, “but we’ll try. Now we have our own Banda de Guerra. We used to bring a Banda de Guerra from Tijuana that cost us thousands of dollars. But we went to Mexico and bought everything needed to start our own — tamboras [marching band field drums], trumpets, clarinets, uniforms, everything. So we’re inviting everyone to come down and celebrate the Cinco de Mayo with us and hear this great band!”