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Group Takes Sober Stance on Cinco de Mayo

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A break in the clouds and the sun’s return attracted thousands of people to Oxnard on Sunday to listen to mariachi and salsa bands and watch the colorful whirl of ballet folklorico skirts during two daylong Cinco de Mayo celebrations.

People rode carousels and bumper cars and danced to the music on downtown’s 5th Street, which was closed for the festivities. At Del Sol Park in La Colonia, numerous families gathered under shade trees to eat churros, a sugar-covered snack, and tamales sold by dozens of booths offering traditional Mexican food.

“I’m here to eat some tacos and listen to the music,” said Rogelio Solano, lying on the grass in the sunshine with his wife and 3-year-old daughter.

While the similar sights and sounds wafted through both Cinco de Mayo events, there was one notable difference: No beer was served at the Del Sol Park celebration.

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Vicki Gonzales, who has helped organize the alcohol-free party every year since it began in 1994, said she fears the cultural holiday no longer focuses on Mexico’s road to independence, but has become just an excuse for crowds of people to drink in public.

“I’m afraid it’s becoming like St. Patrick’s Day,” Gonzales said. “The beer companies are exploiting our culture, marketing Cinco de Mayo as a day to drink.”

Gonzales belongs to the Coalition for Community Development, which sponsored the Del Sol event. The activist group espouses responsible drinking within the Latino community and has been instrumental in closing several neighborhood bars and liquor stores in Oxnard that had been accused of selling alcohol to minors.

At the Cinco de Mayo celebration downtown, which was sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Ventura County, an 8-foot-high chain-link fence cordoned off the area where beer was served.

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Organizers of both events were appreciative of each other’s stance on alcohol consumption.

“We applaud them for doing an alcohol-safe event with the enclosed beer garden,” Gonzales said. “The perception is that we’re prohibitionists, but we’re not. We just want to educate people to drink responsibly.”

Gary Davis, an organizer of the chamber’s event, said it is important to offer choice when it comes to alcohol.

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“We respect their alcohol-free decision and wish them well. But we felt if adults want to have a beer, that’s appropriate for this celebration--if done in moderation,” said Davis. The chamber event was not sponsored by any beer companies, he added.

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John Bellfield of Oxnard, who was enjoying a cold brew within the gated area, noted that most of the people celebrating were doing so without drinking.

“The beer’s OK, but you can get that at home,” Bellfield said. “I think you come here for the music, food and atmosphere. There’s lots of people having a great time who aren’t in here drinking.”

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But at Del Sol Park, it was important to Saul Quentero to be in a place with his wife and three young children where there was no alcohol.

“This is a day to enjoy with the family, not drink,” Quentero said. “You don’t need alcohol to be happy.”

Quentero noted that Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates when the Mexican army stopped an invasion of French troops near Puebla on May 5, 1862, is not considered an important holiday in Mexico. Mexican Independence Day, Sept. 16, the date in 1810 when the revolt against Spanish rule began, is much more significant south of the border.

That makes Quentero suspicious about Cinco de Mayo’s popularity in the Southwest of the United States.

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“Cinco de Mayo is not that big of a holiday--just a battle we won, that’s all. But the beer companies pick this day to promote, not our real Independence Day,” Quentero said. “Must be that there is not so much going on for beer this month.”

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Gonzales said she hoped her group’s alcohol-free celebration let people have a good time without diminishing the history of Cinco de Mayo.

“Too long it has been clouded by a party atmosphere,” Gonzales said. “Our message is: You don’t need alcohol to celebrate cultural holidays.”

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