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Essay Winner Puts Life in Cinco de Mayo Battle

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Times Staff Writer

Thanks to a story-telling grandfather, Compton eighth-grader Gabriela Rodriguez talks about Cinco de Mayo as if she was at the historic Mexican battle in 1862.

“As I listened to his version of the Battle of Puebla, I was suddenly transported to that time,” she told a crowd of 100 Tuesday at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. “I saw the fear-stricken faces of the Mexican warriors. I felt the pain in a child’s scream as his father was being set on fire.

“I saw and felt the confusion of little orphaned children as they frantically ran . . . searching for a familiar face. I heard the hissing sound of shells exploded in midair.”

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The war stories told to her by grandfather Antonino Peredia--and first recounted by a great-great grandfather who saw the battle--helped Gabriela win a $100 U.S. savings bond in the annual Cinco de Mayo essay contest that drew entries from 783 students throughout Southern California.

3 Others Honored

She and three other students--Martha Arevalo, Olivia Guzman and Veronica Villa--were honored Tuesday during a ceremony at the museum.

The contest, organized by USC’s Office of Hispanic Program, the Los Angeles city schools’ Mexican-American Education Commission and the Mexican consulate in Los Angeles, is designed to promote awareness of the holiday, which is commonly mistaken for Mexican independence day.

The holiday marks the May 5, 1862, battle at the town of Puebla, where a ragtag, undernourished army of Mexicans overwhelmed 7,500 French troops. Although the French eventually dominated Mexico for five years, the battle for many Mexicans marks their country’s struggle against foreign intervention.

Arevalo, a 10th-grader at Eagle Rock High School, reminded those at the ceremony that Mexico had a large foreign debt then, as it does today, and was threatened with occupation by three colonial powers, England, Spain and France. The countries invaded Mexico after Mexico President Benito Juarez’s government refused to pay the foreign debt.

“No country would dare try to occupy Mexico now,” she said.

The two other winners, Villa, a ninth-grader at Irving Junior High School, and Guzman, an 11th-grader at St. Mary’s Academy, both in Los Angeles, stressed the fact that women and children were part of the victorious Mexican army.

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“France had 6,500 well-equipped soldiers,” Veronica said. “(Mexicans) . . . humiliated the powerful French.”

Each of the accounts drew sustained applause from the audience.

“These essays are part of the continuing battle for education for our people,” said Carlos Barron, director of the Los Angeles city schools’ Mexican-American Education Commission, which co-sponsored the contest.

But not all of the essay finalists were either a Latino or a Spanish speaker. Among the finalists was Annie Chu, a ninth-grader at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, who knew practically nothing about Mexico before writing her essay.

“I entered because of a class on colonialism,” she said. “Now I want to visit Mexico.”

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