Mexicans have long wondered why Cinco de Mayo is more of a to-do in the United States than it is in Mexico. Last Sunday, treading through a crowd of admirers, signing autographs, shaking hands, offering his cheek to fans' kisses, Juan Carlos Hidalgo, superstar disc jockey and one of the most listened-to men in Los Angeles, was bursting with pride over the success of the music festival that his radio station, KLAX, was hosting at the L.A. Sports Arena. Hidalgo, who arrived undocumented in this country 10 years ago and picked strawberries up the coast in Oxnard before breaking into radio, admits that the celebration is a commercial matter, yet its real value is in encouraging Southern California's Latinos to revel in their numbers and their strengths.
Hundreds of thousands showed up at the three all-day events held last Sunday to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. There was a shared feeling of progress among the mostly country-folk who came out to hear banda at the Sports Arena, the more urbane crowd swaying to salsa and merengue at the L.A. Fiesta Broadway, and the largely middle-class pop fans who crushed against perimeter fences to catch a better glimpse of the Puerto Rican "Adonis," Ricky Martin, at KLVE's celebration at Whittier Narrows Regional Park. Petra Carrasco of East Los Angeles echoed the sentiments of many celebrants when she told us there is more confidence among Latinos today than there was when she arrived from Mexico in 1974. "Now we feel like this is our country," she said. "An event like today's could not have happened 20 years ago."
Until very recently, Cinco de Mayo was more a quaint recognition of past culture than a celebration of a living one. The more than threefold increase in L.A. County's Latino population between 1970 and 1990 has permanently changed the cultural ecology of Southern California. Simply put, the raw numbers of Latinos have created more space for being Latino. Today's immigrants are connecting their past and present in a way that previous generations of immigrants could not have fathomed. Second- and third-generation Mexican Americans are learning Spanish to cash in on business opportunities or because they're forced to deal daily with the newcomers who are more like their grandparents than like themselves. In 1970, English was the most commonly heard language in L.A.'s Latino neighborhoods. Today, two-thirds of adult Latinos in L.A. County are foreign-born. The assimilative process has been turned on its head.
Bilingualism is becoming the norm among Latinos, not because of educational policy but because of market forces. Television and radio, videos and compact discs, supermarket chains and jumbo jets keep the old language and customs alive. Banda , the traditional Mexican musical style that has been given new life by contemporary bands' up-tempo interpretations, took the Mexican world by storm only after a Hollywood radio station decided to showcase it. Reporters from Mexico City called Los Angeles to find out about the newest Mexican musical craze. Former gang members have told us that donning sombreros and cowboy boots--the requisite banda gear--makes them feel like they're back to being Mexicans. But back from what?
The melee that erupted Sunday at Fiesta Broadway is a symptom of the mentality of marginalization that still exists in some parts of the Latino community. It is a lamentable holdover from the days--only a few years ago--when we were minorities, when we defined ourselves by virtue of our apposition to someone else. Contrasted with the cultural confidence of so many festival-goers, the gangbangers who instigated the violence don't feel part of a collective group but only their very small one. Three cholos who were among the crowd that began the fighting smiled triumphantly and asked for their picture to be taken while throwing their gang signs, the cryptic hand signals of their exclusive club.
Alienation from mainstream culture undoubtedly plays a role in the appeal of gang life to youth. Unfortunately, much of today's American youth culture glorifies marginality, the suffering and acting-out of the outsider, the cult of "not belonging."
Ironically, while more and more Americans see themselves as minorities in one form or another, most Latino Southern Californians are finding comfort in being part of a community that is becoming the majority. Large civic events like the ones held last Sunday are defining moments in this emergence. Celebrants look around and see the depth and breadth of who they are.
Two Latino CPAs told us that the festival at Whittier Narrows gave them the feeling that they were connected to a larger civilization. A Guatemalan father of four listening to Colombia's Grupo Niche at the Fiesta Broadway accurately recounted for us the story of Cinco de Mayo--the Mexican army's triumph over the French at Puebla on May 5, 1862. An Ecuadoran-born woman who spent the day waiting to see a Venezuelan singer confessed to having been Mexicanized in Los Angeles. Latinos in all their variety have begun to define themselves on their own terms.
While it was once assumed that the only way to become a true American was to strip away all other experience, today it is evident that strong ethnic and cultural identities actively reinforce what were once considered quintessentially American values. Adherence to tradition translates into strong family and religious ties as well as a healthy work ethic. A Latino juvenile probation officer told us last year that the closer a youngster's ties to Mexican traditional values, the less likely he or she is to wind up in serious trouble.
Twenty years ago, sociological literature considered ethnic identification a deviant behavior, along with abusing drugs and playing jazz for a living. Today Latinos have begun to value their own norms and ways of life. It is only the strength of our identity and our multirooted culture that can make the disaffected among us, particularly the youth, feel like they belong to the larger society. In fact, we are becoming the mainstream.