Better Late Than . . . : Holidays: Oxnard's Cinco de Mayo celebration was postponed in the wake of L.A. riots. But the delayed fiesta seems to be a success.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousands of families streamed into downtown Oxnard for the annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta Saturday, saying they were unperturbed by the delay imposed three weeks ago when city officials feared spillover violence from the Los Angeles riots.

Event organizers reported no opening-day disturbances Saturday and said they expect none today stemming from not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case.

The event features a lineup of local musicians and big-name entertainers from Mexico, a dozen midway rides and 80 colorful food booths offering treats from mangoes on a stick to carnitas and tacos.

Although no attendance figures were available Saturday, festival organizers said they expected about 200,000 visitors from Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties by the event's end at 10 tonight. The annual event was advertised in Spanish-language newspapers and on radio and television in three counties.

"We came because we like the people and we like to dance," said Angelina Espinoza Martinez, who wore a blue floral Mexican party dress with black dancing shoes as she sat in a lawn chair watching a mariachi band.

"There are going to be many more people this year than in past years," she said. "That lifts up the spirit of the party."

Cinco de Mayo, a day of national pride for Mexicans and Americans of Mexican descent, commemorates the victory of a poorly armed group of Mexicans over the French on May 5, 1862, at Puebla, Mexico.

"This is all families," said Claudio Macarty, sales manager for the Spanish-language KSTV Channel 57 of Ventura, a fiesta sponsor. "There are no gangs."

Macarty said he supported Oxnard's decision to delay the celebration until the violence in Los Angeles had subsided.

"Some people and the sponsors were afraid to come," he said. "It was a very painful situation. But now, everyone is happy to be here."

The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Ventura County, which organized the event as a fund-raiser, initially feared that it would lose thousands of dollars in money owed to vendors and musicians.

But chamber President Roberto Sanchez said in opening ceremonies on Saturday that only two of the 80 vendors backed out, and those two were replaced. The Mexican musicians, who would not drive through Los Angeles to get to Oxnard on May 5, had no objections to coming this weekend, organizers said.

"Three weeks ago, we could not guarantee people's safety," Sanchez told a crowd. "Today, we can all be safe and enjoy."

Fiesta-goers voiced support for the decision to postpone.

"We were disappointed that it was delayed because we were looking forward to it," said Cristina Lomeli of Oxnard.

"But we were afraid there would be violence," said her husband, Joe, who brought his children to show them a little of their heritage. "We're Hispanic. This is our tradition."

Pauline Alatorre called the delay "a wise choice." She came to the fiesta with her three sons, her mother, her sister and her family.

"I wasn't going to come or let my kids come," she said.

Her niece, 4-year-old Nicole Rojo, was one of many children in clothing from Latin America. She had learned about Cinco de Mayo in her preschool and insisted on wearing the long white dress with bright embroidery that her grandmother brought her from Guatemala.

"She knows about our culture," Alatorre said.

Throughout the day, Mexican and local musicians performed on two stages around Plaza Park in downtown Oxnard. Streets had been blocked off to traffic to allow people to dance near the bands or stroll down the street dodging only small children with balloons.

Game booth barkers called to passersby to try their luck at tossing dimes or throwing darts at balloons.

Customers crowded around vendors selling fresh fruit, drinks and fruit bars and traditional Mexican fare.

"I came here to have fun and eat," said 11-year-old Philipe Lopez of Oxnard, munching on chicharrones with his cousins, Victor and Alvaro Lopez.

"It's like Mother's Day," Philipe said. "It's a day to bring families together to have fun."

SCHEDULE OF EVENTS: B16

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