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PERSPECTIVE ON DIVERSITY : California Dreamin’ on Cinco de Mayo : For all its problems, this is still the golden state of opportunity where Mexican roots nurture American success.

<i> Jose Antonio Burciaga is a Northern California writer, the author of "Drink Cultura" and "Spilling the Beans," to be published in June by Joshua Odell Editions, Santa Barbara</i>

Every year, we Californians celebrate Cinco de Mayo and struggle to remember the reason for this holiday. Historically, it celebrates a lone Mexican victory in a war that Mexico lost: On May 5, 1862, in Puebla, Mexico, an indigent indigenous force under Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza (who was born in Texas when that state was part of Mexico) defeated a French expeditionary force, at that time part of the most powerful army in the world.

In reality, Cinco de Mayo has become a colorful springtime fiesta that is fast spreading throughout the country with all the commercial trimmings of other U.S. holidays.

This year, in light of Mexico’s financial and political agonies, the anti-immigration Proposition 187 and the anti-affirmative action initiative, it’s ironic or painful to be celebrating a Mexican holiday.

Nonetheless, it should serve to jog our memories of how close we are to Mexico. From San Ysidro on the border to Santa Rosa in the north, from Santa Cruz on the coast to San Bernardino in the desert, California claims 57 towns and cities named after santos. To paraphrase a popular aphorism: Poor California, with so many santos and so far from God! Gov. Wilson would probably add, “And so close to Mexico.”

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California is my adopted state, by virtue of a mixed marriage. I’m from Texas, she’s from California. This remarkable state has grown on me the way I outgrew Texas, years layered one over the other. I now admit a love for California.

With Texas, it was a love-hate relationship. Relations between Texans and Texanos were pitched with overt racism, not the subtle style I found here 20 years ago.

However, Proposition 187 and the anti-affirmative action initiative make me feel like I’m right back in Texas. There’s a vigilante mood here not unlike that of a century ago. Even Texans are surprised at California’s vehemence and, being more experienced, are wooing Mexican business away from Califas.

Still, my attachment to California is so strong that I feel magnetized. I feel it through a melancholic sadness, an enchanting nostalgia for the California that has always been there, through the cities and towns named after spiritual ghosts, through the floods, earthquakes, fires and riots.

There’s a mysterious energy that drives California to lead the nation in spiritual and temporal fashions, in sensational crimes, lifestyles, inventions and discoveries. Some believe it is the massive fields of energy from the ocean, from the deep blue sky or the energy that seeps up through the faults in the earth.

My California dreams began in the late 1940s in west Texas. Our home was on a street that turned into the highway that led beyond the New Mexico sunsets. We were always waving goodby to family friends and their kids, piled into ancient cars on their way to the golden state of opportunity, to California. A year or two later, some would return from California to culture-shock us. I had never seen Mexican women in hip-hugging pedal-pushers. The kids no longer spoke Spanish. The men showed off their late-model station wagons boasting California license plates.

California was the coolest. During the ‘50s, a time of adolescent innocence, everything from California was cool.

In Texas, you could spot a California short-sleeve shirt a block away by the color and design. “California threads?” we would ask any proud vato wearing a snappy camisa. We would rub the cloth between our fingers. From there, our fingers would walk up to the shirt pocket, pull out a cigarette from his pack, and say “Nice shirt, man! California?” It became a way to bum cigarettes.

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Most Texanos had always identified as Mexicanos, Mexican Americans; in the barrios and the military, it was always Chicanos. When the Chicano movement exploded in California, many of us ridiculed those psuedo-"Dons” with dark Indian faces asserting their “Spanish” heritage. But it wasn’t long before I was swept by the crusading likes of modern Californios such as Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Ernesto Galarza, Ignacio Lopez, Luisa Moreno and Bert Corona. Other crusaders came along: Vilma Martinez, Antonia Hernandez, Herman Gallegos, Alurista and Jose Montoya, farm workers, attorneys, union activists, artists, poets--all migrants and immigrants, not one of these leaders born in California.

They reckoned this had to be their land after working its soil. They had grown to love the campos and the towns named after the santos their mothers and grandmothers lit votive candles and prayed to when their children migrated to California.

Now it’s ours. We are Californians. And in this state that would rank as the third-most-populated Spanish-speaking country in the world, we can say, proudly and happily, Viva el Cinco de Mayo!


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