L.A. Fiesta Broadway Draws 500,000 People : Cinco de Mayo: Kickoff of week of events was the largest cultural block party downtown since 1986.


An estimated 500,000 people squeezed onto Broadway on Sunday to launch a week of Cinco de Mayo celebrations in Los Angeles, swaying to the saucy tunes of Latino bands and feasting on Southwestern cuisine in the largest cultural block party downtown since the violence-marred 1986 L.A. Street Scene.

Police said the crowd at the festival, called L.A. Fiesta Broadway, was well-behaved. They reported only five arrests--two for drug possession, two for drunkenness and one for burglary--throughout the day. But the salsa, folkloric and pop performers on nine stages along 10 blocks of Broadway drew such a concentration of people that police closed all of the bandstands for a half hour, waiting for the crowds to thin. The bandstands were later reopened and closed intermittently, depending on the size of the crowd. Several acts were canceled. There were no injuries.

"It was a good-natured bunch, but the flow of people along Broadway pushed them into the stage and we were worried about people getting trampled," Sgt. Steve Twohy, who ran the Los Angeles Police Department's festival command post, said early Sunday evening. "We just didn't want anyone to get hurt."

Alcohol sales were drastically restricted--there were only two beer concessions operated by the festival, each guarded by police--and officers and organizers said that was a key distinction between this outdoor festival and the L.A. Street Scene, which was tainted by alcohol-induced violence.

The noon-to-dusk festival was the first large-scale community attempt to celebrate the Mexican holiday in Los Angeles, where an estimated 35% of the population is Latino.

Middle-class Mexicans came to introduce their American-born children to a daylong dose of culture. Street people like Dewaynne Bridges recycled beer cans so that he could "come back and buy a burrito for $2.50."

Couples married on an impulse in a Broadway chapel. Teen-agers ogled each other. Miss Carnation hawked chocolate-covered ice cream bars as "healthy, with all the necessary dairy products."

The festival cost more than $1 million and was put on by a partnership of city officials, KMEX-TV and downtown merchants trying to revitalize the commercial district.

Modeled after the largest such festival in the country, the Calle Ocho street party in Miami, the festival was taped and will be telecast on the Univision Spanish-language network to 553 American affiliates and 15 Latin American countries on Thursday. KMEX will air a special on the festival on Saturday.

Under brooding skies that turned sunny by mid-afternoon, celebrants came from as far away as Guadalajara and filled Broadway from Olympic Boulevard north to Temple Street by 2 p.m. The crowd reached what police considered capacity for the stretch of Broadway--a half-million--by 5:30 p.m., and newcomers were not allowed on the street.

At the stages along Broadway the crowd swayed to live music as steam from the outdoor barbecues clouded the air. Dozens of booths offered pork and beef tacos, churros, shrimp egg rolls and pizza. Much like some ballparks, drinkers could buy only two beers at a time. They had to be consumed in an area adjacent to the concession.

Beer was also available at restaurants, bars and markets in the area, and merchants in the Grand Central Market were doing a booming business in six-packs and pitchers of beer.

The market, at 90,000 square feet the largest business within the boundaries of the Fiesta, sells everything from clothing to fresh produce and take-out food. It was brimming with celebrants and strolling mariachis performing for $6 a song.

As the mariachis played a torchy number about lost love, Jesus Gonzalez, 27, of Guadalajara, danced with Ana Maria Garcia, 23.

"My friends invited me to come," said Gonzalez, sipping a beer and still dancing. "They told me not to miss it. So here I am."

Marta Gonzalez, an RTD bus driver, was exhausted by mid-afternoon as she drove a packed coach south on Spring Street.

"I'm miserable," she said, watching with relief as the bus emptied near the festival entrance. "This is the busiest day I've had in four years as a bus driver. There are thousands of people coming to downtown L.A."

As a band in matching red outfits sang "You're My New Love," Cynthia Garibaldi and Rosalba Hernandez, 10-year-old girls from South Gate, bought sugary pastries from a nearby cart. They said they had come with their parents, who immigrated from Mexico, to see relatives in the Garibaldi band perform on the main stage. They admitted later, however, that they really wanted to see Latino music stars Alejandra Guzman and Luis Enrique.

"We've been here since 12:30," said Cynthia. "It's really neat. My family goes to a lot of things like this."

Fiesta sponsors attributed the peaceful nature of the party to precautions they took in light of the violent 1986 L.A. Street Scene, a two-day summer party that drew a million people.

The Street Scene, an outdoor food and music festival that was a downtown fixture for nine years, was canceled by the Los Angeles City Council because of financial troubles and violence. One man was fatally shot and four others were stabbed.

City officials blamed excessive drinking and the failure of a punk rock band to appear for the unruly crowd. Fiesta Broadway organizers said they took note of the Street Scene's mistakes.

They only booked "family-oriented" entertainers. The festival began and ended earlier than the Street Scene. And 350 Los Angeles police officers were joined by 220 private security guards to control the crowd.

Organizers are hoping the festival becomes the largest Cinco de Mayo celebration in the country, said Emilio Nicolas Jr., general manager of KMEX-TV.

The city of Los Angeles co-sponsored the festival and, along with providing police officers, kicked in $300,000 for additional staffing. Any profit from the festival will support Miracle on Broadway, a nonprofit partnership of business owners and the Community Redevelopment Agency that is trying to spruce up the street and improve its image. Ironically, many merchants reported that business was actually down Sunday, although they believe the festival will produce long-term benefits by showing that Broadway is a safe place to shop.

One of the year's biggest celebrations for the region's residents of Mexican-origin and other Latinos, Cinco de Mayo marks the victory of Mexican troops over French soldiers on May 5, 1862, in the central Mexican town of Puebla.

Jessie Perez of East Los Angeles said his first priority at the festival was meeting women, and he zeroed in on Teri Pink, Miss Carnation, who caught his eye in her red miniskirt uniform.

"I'm Mexican so I know all about my own culture," said Perez, who attended the Fiesta with two black friends and a Latino buddy. "I wanted to show them. Yesterday we did the African-American" cultural experience at a Carson festival.

"There's more security at this thing than the Street Scene. It's safer, less violent, less drinking. I like that," Perez said.

At Guadalupe Wedding Chapel on Broadway, a young couple sat in an office waiting to be married. Wedding music was piped into the office through a speaker on the ceiling, competing with the bandstands outside.

"We had thought of getting married before," said Jose Bibian, 25, of Inglewood. "But when we came to the fiesta and saw the chapel, we just decided to do it."

Added his bride, Maria Alma Vasquez, 15, who said she had her parents' consent to marry: "Now we can celebrate our wedding anniversary at Fiesta Broadway for years to come."

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