Sept. 16: It's Very Special : Festival: Downtown Santa Ana merchants have organized a three-day street fair to celebrate the 182nd anniversary of Mexican Independence Day.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teresa Saldivar still remembers the flutter of red, green and white flags and the brilliant flash of fireworks on her family treks south of the border each Sept. 16 to commemorate Mexican Independence Day.

"I was probably 7 or 8 years old the first time I saw the big fireworks, and I loved it!" recalled the owner of Teresa's Jewelers in downtown Santa Ana. "I loved the festivity--oh, and the decorations. I couldn't believe that everybody had their flags out and that all the stores were decorated for the celebration."

Now, to mark the 182nd anniversary of this date in Mexican history today, Saldivar has decked out her 4th Street shop with the flags of Mexico and numerous Latin American countries, which also celebrate independence days in September. Friends and store employees also have contributed displays of a variety of ethnic arts and crafts.

Saldivar is one of dozens of downtown Santa Ana merchants behind this weekend's street fair honoring Mexican Independence Day, a three-day extravaganza that includes an international bicycle race, a parade and an awards ceremony. The biggest festival of its kind in the Southland, the festivities are expected to draw 350,000 people and will be televised to as many as 300 million people around the world.

With Cinco de Mayo ceremonies in Los Angeles, Orange County and elsewhere delayed because of the Los Angeles riots, the Santa Ana event--called Las Fiestas Patrias de Independencia--looms as the largest Latino festival this year. An estimated 4,000 people were expected to attend the traditional Los Angeles observance of Mexico's Independence Day on the steps of City Hall Tuesday night.

Though the observance will mean closing the 4th Street marketplace to cars beginning Friday afternoon, a move likely to cost Saldivar sales this weekend, the 39-year-old businesswoman sees the festival as a chance to honor her own ethnic heritage and that of her customers, about 90% of whom are of Mexican or Latin American descent.

"The way I feel is that we're having a big party this weekend, so let's get in the spirit," she said. "Let's put up streamers of green, red and white, the colors of the Mexican flag. Let's go all out!"

The event has its roots in the tiny village of Dolores in what was then New Spain. There on Sept. 16, 1810, a rebellious parish priest issued a call to arms to overthrow Spanish rule in Mexico. That pealing of the church bells by Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla triggered a struggle for independence that ended in 1821 when Mexicans overthrew Spanish rule.

Now, Diez y Seis de Septiembre--the 16th of September--is a holiday in Mexico on a par with the Fourth of July in the United States and St. Patrick's Day in Ireland. And in some heavily Latino U.S. communities, it has begun to overshadow the more familiar Cinco de Mayo, a minor holiday in Mexico celebrating the routing of invading French forces by Mexican troops at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

In Mexico and many U.S. cities, Mexican Independence Day festivities are often kicked off with a re-enactment of Hidalgo's ringing of the bells and accompanying shout or el grito at the stroke of midnight on Sept. 15.

This year, no such bell ringing was planned at Orange County churches, said Msgr. Jaime Soto, episcopal vicar for the Hispanic community in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange.

But the increasing profile of celebrations such as the fourth annual Santa Ana fiesta and other events this week marking Diez y Seis de Septiembre is a sign of the growing clout of Latinos, Soto said.

"Those of us second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans in the past identified a lot with Cinco de Mayo," Soto said. "We gave it much more weight than they do in Mexico. . . . But in recent years, I have seen Diez y Seis de Septiembre grow in prominence and importance within the Latino community. I attribute that to the Latino immigrant community beginning to assert itself more culturally . . . and organizing events in keeping with the traditions they were raised with."

Perhaps nothing symbolizes the arrival of Diez y Seis de Septiembre in the American cultural consciousness more than its inclusion in Saturday's Angels' game. Soto will officiate at a special pregame "Hispanic Night" ceremony for Mexican Independence Day at Anaheim Stadium.

Other commemorations around Orange County include a monthlong art exhibit of works by Orange County Latino artists at Fullerton's Hunt Library in honor of Mexican Independence Day.

Irvine Valley College students and their chapter of MEChA--Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan--brought Cuauhtemoc Aztec dancers to the Irvine campus on Tuesday as part of daylong festivities.

And the Mexican consulate in Orange County held a special celebration for prominent local Latinos, business and political officials at a Santa Ana restaurant Tuesday night.

But the granddaddy of them all is Las Fiestas Patrias Independencia in Santa Ana, beginning at noon Friday.

The event will feature entertainers, who are flying in from throughout Latin America to appear on one of three stages set up along 4th Street, a carnival, as well as booths hawking ethnic food and refreshment. On Friday evening, event organizers will hold an awards ceremony on the steps of the Orange County Courthouse to honor the contributions of prominent Latinos.

Then at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, Mexico's 1992 Olympic bicycle team is expected to whiz around the Civic Center along with dozens of other entrants in the Golden Grand Prix Bike Race, an internationally sanctioned competition. And at 1 p.m., Independence Day celebrants will strut their stuff in a nine-block parade down Santa Ana's Main Street.

The street fair will open each day at noon, ending at 10 p.m. Friday, midnight Saturday and 9 p.m. Sunday. The estimated costs, more than $350,000, are being underwritten by sponsors such as AT&T;, United Airlines, Pepsi, RJR Nabisco, Arco, Wells Fargo Bank and the Spanish language newspaper, La Opinion.

This will be the fourth year that Santa Ana has put on a festival of this size, dwarfing the city's traditional Cinco de Mayo observances. In fact, this year's smaller Cinco de Mayo fiesta was postponed out of police and city officials' concern about possible tensions spilling over from the rioting that began in Los Angeles on April 29.

One reason for the size of the event, said Roger Kooi, Santa Ana's downtown development manager, is that the city combined traditional September observances of Mexican Independence Day with its regular October Golden City Days, a commemoration of historic Santa Ana.

Now, the emphasis is on the Mexican holiday. But Saldivar points out that it also celebrates the independence day holidays of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Chile.

"A lot of people think there are just Mexican immigrants in Orange County, but more and more, we're seeing people from Central and even South America," Saldivar said. "About 20% of my clientele is made up of Central Americans. It's important that they also feel we are celebrating their independence."

Saldivar already has bought 200 tiny replicas of the Mexican flag to hand out to children at the fiesta. She and her family and employees also plan to wear costumes representing various parts of Mexico.

Born and reared in Santa Ana, Saldivar said the Fourth of July is every bit as important to her as Mexican Independence Day. She has a replica of the U.S. flag draped on a jewelry store counter next to the Mexican flag this week to prove it.

And she considers herself fortunate that in 1992, she doesn't have to choose.

"I'm really lucky," Saldivar said. "I get to celebrate two independence days."

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