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The Teokalli Mexica Aztec Dance Group performs during Richmond's Mexican Independence Day Celebration. (Photo by Brittany Kirstin)

Richmond celebrates Mexican Independence, growing Latino community

on September 18, 2015

The pulse of mariachi echoed into a rainy night Wednesday as a crowd gathered in Richmond to celebrate Mexican Independence Day.

Rosa Lara presents an award to Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. (Photo by Brittany Murphy)

Rosa Lara presents an award to Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus. (Photo by Brittany Murphy)

Richmond’s 23rd Street Merchant’s Association organized the event, held at the newly opened El Campesino Bar and Grill, in an effort to connect the city’s Spanish-speaking residents with their neighbors. The business group gave “community recognition” awards to Richmond Police Chris Magnus and Lt. Joey Schlemmer for their work helping to organize similar events, like the Cinco de Mayo celebration in May.

“Many of Richmond’s Latino residents come from countries where people don’t trust the police,” said Rosa Lara, president of the 23rd Street Merchant’s Association. “Through events like these, we hope to create more trust between the police and Richmond’s newest residents.”

If the past is any indication, Lara’s efforts are working.

A decade ago, riots erupted in Richmond when locals were forbidden from celebrating Cinco de Mayo—the holiday commemorating Mexico’s victory over French invaders in 1862. The 23rd Street business group partnered with Richmond police to host the city’s first official Cinco de Mayo celebration in 2007. The annual event has grown to include a parade with three stages for live music and draws thousands of spectators from throughout the state.

Unlike Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day is typically not celebrated in U.S. cities, even those with significant numbers of residents who claim Mexican descent. That may be starting to change. According to U.S. census data, Richmond’s Latino population increased by nearly a third since the year 2000. Now 40 percent of Richmond’s residents identify as Latino, and traditional holidays in countries like Mexico have become an opportunity for the entire community to celebrate together.

“The city’s Cinco de Mayo celebration was once disorganized and violent,” Schlemmer said. “Now, I truly enjoy being a part of these sorts of community events.”

A decade ago, signs in grocery stores that advertised goods in Spanish were one of the only examples of Richmond’s changing demographics, but the immigrant population has now become far more visible. Wednesday night’s celebration was the largest of its kind since Richmond’s first Mexican Independence Day celebration was held in 2007. For many who attended, the event evoked memories of home.

“Relationships are really important to Latinos,” said Patricia Canessa, a native of El Salvador who moved to Richmond five months ago to work as the public affairs manager at Richmond’s Chevron Refinery. “It’s part of our culture to share a meal and conversation together.”

Mexican Independence Day pays tribute to the day in 1810 when Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a priest in the small town of Dolores, Mexico, famously called the townspeople to revolt against Spanish rule. The event, known in Mexico as El Grito, or, “The Cry,” sparked Mexico’s war for independence. Every September, thousands of Mexicans gather in the central plaza of Mexico City to watch the president honor El Grito by yelling the phrase “Viva Mexico!” from the National Palace.

During Wednesday’s celebration in Richmond, more than 250 people flooded into the wide hall of El Campesino Bar and Grill, a former grocery store renovated into a spacious restaurant that includes a stage for musical performances. Local uniformed police officers sat next to families who emigrated from the state of Michoacán in western Mexico.

They all sat around tables decorated with glasses that brimmed with white, green and red napkins to represent the colors of the Mexican flag. Roaring drumbeats and the thick scent of burning incense that smelled of sage announced the arrival of a local dance troupe, Teokalli Mexica, which performed traditional Aztec dances for the crowd.

Teokalli Mexica leader Alvaro Tellez wore a headdress of pheasant feathers and a shimmering sequined suit. Tellez told the spectators that Mexican independence was achieved because African-Mexicans, the descendants of African slaves, joined with indigenous Mexicans in the fight against the Spanish.

“Like Mexico, Richmond is a community where African-American, Anglo, and Latino people live side by side,” Tellez said.

Richmond resident Noe Gudino, attending the evenings festivities. (Photo by Brittany Murphy)

Richmond resident Noe Gudino, attending the evenings festivities. (Photo by Brittany Murphy)

As the traditional dancers moved out of the restaurant, Richmond resident Noe Gudino, 22, looked on from the crowd as the local youth mariachi band Cuerditas de Oro took the stage. The event was particularly meaningful for Gudino, whose mother is an African-American woman from San Francisco and father an undocumented immigrant from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Gudino smiled as the staccato notes of the mariachi band’s trumpet players echoed in the restaurant.

“This is my first time at a Mexican Independence Day celebration,” Gudino said. “It’s pretty dope seeing the community show an appreciation for Mexican culture.”

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