If everyone can be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, then recent years have shown that everyone can be Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.

If everyone can be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, then recent years have shown that everyone can be Mexican on Cinco de Mayo.

The traditional celebration, which commemorates the May 5, 1862, victory of the Mexican Army over French forces, has turned into a far-reaching celebration of Latino heritage. The trend has long spread to bars that offer dollar shots of tequila and cheap bottles of Corona, but local Hispanic groups say it also means more awareness of their culture and traditions.

“It’s diversifying. You’ll see all nationalities celebrating, just like at the St. Patrick’s Day parade and Polish parades in Chicago. Everyone’s involved in Cinco de Mayo,” said Tuffy Quiñones, vice president of the Rockford Area Mexican Business Association.

Attendance at Cinco de Mayo events has blossomed over the years. Cristina Gloria, vice president of ALERTA, a Hispanic awareness group in Belvidere, said the group’s celebration started small.

“ALERTA used to have a family picnic when we started, most of the people who came were volunteers and family members, all Mexicans and maybe one Anglo,” she said. “Then we started the 5K Cinco de Mayo race in 2006. I thought if I had 20 runners, I’d be happy. I started with 50 runners in 2006. Ninety-five percent of them were Anglos. We had 75 runners in 2007. I’m hoping to have 100 runners this year.”

On the flip side, bars and restaurants have increased their marketing of Cinco de Mayo-themed nights, too.

Erik Hendershot, manager of Cousin’s Bar & Grill, said they’ll offer specials on Mexican beers, tequila and tacos through the weekend.

“I think it’s an excuse to do a promotion,” he said. “It’s a holiday that somehow got geared up and now, it’s an excuse to run specials and try to gain more business on special days.”

Michael Gonzales, director of the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies at Northern Illinois University, said the expansion of Cinco de Mayo can be positive for Mexicans and Hispanics if education is included in plans. 

“I think it comes down to how individual communities and organizers put together their particular festival,” he said. “If they include some sort of address or literature on why there is this celebration, then I think (education) occurs. People who show up may do it out of a knowledge that this is something that’s celebrated, but not know why.”

Gloria said attendance at Cinco de Mayo events is part of people’s curiosity about another culture.

“It’s a way to get to know the Latino community and to recognize the growth,” she said. “It seems like they like to experiment with other cultures.”

Last year, more than 5,000 people attended Rockford’s Cinco de Mayo parade and festival, hosted annually by RAMBA.

“We’ll have Banda music, mariachi, something for everybody,” said Quiñones.  “We all live in America. We want to bring our culture to (non-Hispanics) and have them share their traditions with us. As long as the weather’s all right, we’ll be rockin’ and rollin’.”

Gloria said the door is open for non-Hispanics to join ALBERTA’s Cinco de Mayo parties — which is why they advertise in English and Spanish for their three-day festival, which includes the 5K race on Saturday, carnival rides and food vendors.

“I’m open to see more people from different cultures, for that composes the melting pot that we are in,” she said.

Sean F. Driscoll can be reached at (815) 987-1410 or sdriscoll@rrstar.com. Betsy López Fritscher, staff writer for Espejo, a Spanish language weekly of the Rockford Register Star can be reached at bfritsch@rrstar.com or (815) 961-5842.

Demographic facts

28.3 million: Number of U.S. residents of Mexican origin in 2006. These residents constituted 9 percent of the nation’s total population and 64 percent of the Hispanic population.

1.2 million: Number of people of Mexican descent 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher. This includes about 350,000 who have a graduate degree.

630,000: Number of Mexican-Americans who are U.S. military veterans.

$347.3 billion: The value of goods traded between the United States and Mexico in 2007. Mexico was our nation’s third-leading trading partner, after Canada and China.

$100.4 million: Value of tamales and other Mexican food specialties (not frozen or canned) produced in the United States in 2002.

25.7: Median age of people in the U.S. of Mexican descent. This compares with 36.4 years for the population as a whole.

Sources: Foreign Trade Statistics; 2002 Economic Census; U.S. Census Bureau