Cinco de Mayo celebrates a tiny slice of history -- the Mexican army's defeat of the French occupation at Puebla, deep in the heart of Mexico, in 1862. But the real celebration is more about the spirit of common people linked together in a shared cause. So, it's a time to party hearty -- a pastime that will abound in the metro area throughout the week, with offerings that vary from art shows to street fairs to a fancy stage performance by Mexico's Ballet Folklórico "Quetzalli" de Veracruz, Monday at the Paramount Theatre. But wherever you look, it's also more than a party. In their own ways, all of these celebrations strive to return something to the rich culture from which they've sprung.
The biggest Cinco de Mayo festival in the nation, the Civic Center Park fete, hosted annually by the NEWSED Community Development Corporation, is the something-for-everyone party, offering everything from the Budweiser Clydesdales to the Selena Stage, where mini-wannabes can mimic the late entertainer. "We have the Aztec market, great shopping, food, Cuervo and Bud -- what more could you ask for?" says NEWSED event coordinator Bridget Slevin, who notes that the festival's size owes much to its multicultural constituency. "For size, Denver's Latino population is not as big as in New York or LA, but this is the first festival of the season, an opportunity to celebrate culture, and all the Latinos come, as well as everybody else." And, she adds, that community spirit is there in full force. "All the money raised through the festival goes right back into the Denver community -- coming down is benefiting the community."
NEWSED's festivities started out on Santa Fe Drive before moving to the Civic Center. But even if the major fun has spread out elsewhere, the barrio thoroughfare still chooses to rejoice on a smaller scale. On Friday night, Carol Mier Fashion Gallery will host a Cinco de Mayo fashion show featuring Michelann Sweeney's Plus Models and Ms. Latina Models on the runway. Sweeney, a self- professed "big girl" who doubles as chairperson at the Chicano Humanities and Arts Center down the street, started her Plus Models after attending the Plus USA Pageant in Chicago a couple of years ago. In Denver, however, the going was tough. "I went to agencies to do plus modeling, but they were all very negative. They told me there was no market for plus-size girls -- even though we're modeling for 60 percent of the buying population. So I just branched out on my own."
Her "little girls" -- the Ms. Latina contingent -- were just a natural offshoot. Sweeney's work with the Hispanic community is the result not of heritage, but of her love affair with the Spanish language -- she figured involvement with CHAC would help keep her bilingual skills sharp. But then, when she decided to put on a Ms. Latina pageant, 93 girls entered the contest within two weeks. Around that same time Carol Mier, a veteran local clothing designer, asked Sweeney if she had models who could fit into a size six. Sweeney's easy response? "Yes. I have 93."
While her girls model for Mier Friday, CHAC will host a reception for a Cinco de Mayo benefit show of works by some of its best-known artists. That includes longtime member Carlos Frésquez, who says it's a way of showing appreciation for CHAC's undying promotion of the city's Chicano arts community, itself born in the spirit of art for humanity's sake. Flashing back twenty years to his first show there, he sums up CHAC's value to young artists: "It was my first true experience showing my work in any kind of professional manner. They helped set the groundwork for me to learn how to frame my work, to think about how it looks displayed on a wall. And CHAC was never dog-eat-dog. We'd all realize that we needed to help each other, and that's what we did. We'd all share the one little bone that we had." CHAC's been through both good and lean times, but it's still hard at work, upholding ethnic traditions and serving as a springboard for young artists.
Carlos Santisteván, an artist and activist in the Chicano community for more than thirty years, was also there at CHAC, which he helped organize back in the early days. Now recognized and acclaimed for his hand-carved santos, Santistevan's career as an artist was always molded by his northern Hispanic/Catholic heritage, from the day he picked up his mother's paring knife and began carving toys at the age of six. A display of his modern work, a beautiful and even divine evolution of style, will be featured as part of the town of Parker's Cinco de Mayo celebration this weekend.
Cultural coordinator Amy Doe admits it's unusual for an upper-class bedroom community such as Parker, where people usually hop in their cars and drive to Denver when seeking culture, to throw a Cinco de Mayo celebration, but she says it's all part of a plan she's implemented since coming on board with the town last February. "I decided to try and build community in the suburbs," she says. "But getting people to stay here and meet their neighbors is an uphill battle. We have a really affluent, educated demographic, and you have to catch their attention in order to get them to stay here." Her goal, she says, is to hear people walk out of an event saying, "I can't believe we had it in Parker!" She thinks featuring artists of Santisteván's caliber will help.