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a man pushing a cart down a street.
Lowriders and paleteros unite and line a block during Cinco de Mayo en Westwood, an annual celebration of pride and resistance among local people in the southwest Denver Westwood community. (Isabel Faulkner for Cinco de Mayo en Westwood)

The original intent of Cinco de Mayo was to celebrate Mexico’s pride and fight for sovereignty and autonomy during the early 1860s.

Reclaiming that pride is one of the goals of “Cinco de Mayo en Westwood,” a free community celebration Saturday on Morrison Road (between Osceola Street and Meade Street) in front of the RISE Westwood Campus. It runs from noon to 7 p.m. 

The event in southwestern Denver will honor local Mexican-American and Chicano communities and will feature an art show, live music, cultural dance performances, local vendors and Mexican food.

The third annual event aims to recognize the historical significance of the Batalla de Puebla and how it created a sense of unity and pride for Mexican and Mexican-American communities. All are welcome but organizers work to ensure Westwood people know they have ownership over the event.

“The Mexican-American community and the Chicano community have used this holiday throughout history as a form of resistance and pride in their own culture, and I feel like some of that sentiment has been lost over the years,” said Damaris Ronkanen, owner of Cultura Chocolate, a small Denver-based chocolate company, and founder of Hecho en Westwood, which creates community events in Westwood that are culturally relevant and accessible.

“We’re really just wanting to bring that back,” she said. “Southwest Denver is a predominantly Latino community and we’re just wanting to make sure there’s an opportunity for them to share their pride for their culture.”

Over the years, the holiday has been co-opted and distorted by commercialization at drinking-based events that have eclipsed the Cinco De Mayo’s true meaning and reduced it to a so-called Cinco De Drinko culture that has re-defined May 5 in the United States, according to several leaders in Denver’s Westwood community organizing the event.

Critics have said enthusiasm for the holiday did not resonate with a broader audience until it was associated with the promotion of Mexican alcoholic beverages and the American festivities that have perpetuated negative stereotypes about Mexican people and promote excessive drinking.

Cinco de Mayo honors the resistance and courage of the Mexican people who fought during the Batalla de Puebla, or Battle of Puebla, in Puebla de Los Ángeles, a small town in east-central Mexico on May 5, 1862.

A Mexican flag on a car at Cinco de Mayo en Westwood, an annual Denver event that aims to recognize the significance of the Batalla de Puebla and how it created a sense of unity, autonomy and pride for Mexican and Mexican-American communities. (Miguel Ortega, Cinco de Mayo en Westwood)

Even though they were short on supplies and outnumbered during the second French Intervention in Mexico, the Mexican army prevailed and claimed sovereignty over their nation. 

The Cinco De Mayo Planning Committee launched the inaugural celebration in 2021 to create a sense of safety and camaraderie during the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic while youth violence rose in the city. One of the main pillars of the event that has remained is a desire to highlight and preserve the culture that still exists in Westwood, a southwestern Denver community that had 16,343 people living there on April 1, 2020, and where 77% of people identified as Hispanic or Latino on the census survey that year.

The Cinco De Mayo event is the largest celebration the planning committee organizes each year. Organizers are invested in providing a model for how other communities and neighborhood cultural identities can be preserved and celebrated through economic revitalization efforts that occur during these types of events, said Mariana del Hierro, executive director of Re:Vision, a nonprofit working to build an equitable and thriving neighborhood with economic and food systems owned and led by Westwood residents.

Westwood, like many other neighborhoods, is going through a transformation and residents have seen sky-rocketing rents, displacement and gentrification, Ronkanen said. The annual Cinco De Mayo event contributes to the local community and economy, showcasing residents and businesses owned by people who live in the neighborhood, del Hierro said.

“For us, it’s really being able to invite folks to experience and participate and celebrate these cultural markers for us in a way that preserves our culture rather than co-opting the culture and it’s a way that folks can come and see the traditions behind it, support local Latinx businesses, support the economic revitalization efforts that are happening here in Westwood and participate in a way that honors the present community,” del Hierro said. 

The median household income in Westwood was just over $40,000, compared with Denver’s median household income of $68,500, according to the 2015-19 American Community Survey, the most recent compiled data available.

Cinco De Mayo is celebrated much more in the United States, particularly in areas with larger Mexican-American communities, and it is not as prevalent in Mexico, Ronkanen said.

Jorge Santiago honors his ancestors through Danza Mexica at Cinco de Mayo en Westwood, an annual event in southwest Denver that works to reclaim the true narrative of the May 5 event. (Miguel Ortega, Cinco de Mayo en Westwood)

The holiday is often confused with Mexican Independence Day, on Sept. 16. However, Mexican Independence Day was established in 1810, about 50 years before the Battle of Puebla. 

The Denver Cinco de Mayo event is like a love letter to Westwood from its residents, said Marianna Lucero, vice president of Hecho en Westwood and executive director of In Lak’ech Denver Arts, an after-school program she started for underserved students.

“Growing up in southwest Denver, this is just one of those special places that I grew up around, and I can see so much around Denver changing and shifting and these other neighborhoods of color are slowly being changed due to gentrification,” she said.

“Although we are seeing that here, we’re trying our hardest to hang on, and how we’re doing that is empowering residents here to have more say in things that are happening, whether that be politically or in events,” she said. “We want to make sure we’re pouring all of our resources and knowledge back into this neighborhood so that we can keep our community strong.”

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco....