What Happened to Downtown Santa Ana’s Cinco de Mayo Festival?

SanTana’s 2015 Cinco de Mayo Festival (YouTube screenshot)

For the first time in two decades, SanTana won’t be hosting a Cinco de Mayo festival in downtown this weekend. The annual tradition drew over 100,000 to Calle Cuatro for two days of music, food, carnival rides and fun! SanTana’s Cinco de Mayo Festival celebrated the Mexican holiday while people elsewhere in the Orange County marked the occasion with sombreros, fake bigotes and even inflatable border walls to be scaled for free drink “green cards.” Its absence this year has revelers wondering what happened. And anti-gentrification activists are ready to pounce in protest seeing the festival’s disappearance as just another Mexi clear out of Calle Cuatro.  

“This is not Drink-O de Mayo,” says Gaby Hernandez, an activist with Protege Santa Ana. “This was an actual cultural tradition that has existed for years that was eliminated by a few people.” 

Since 2014, the city filled in as producers of both the Cinco de Mayo Festival and Fiestas Patrias event celebrating Mexican Independence Day in September. Before that, MXLIVE Entertainment handled event planning for years until the SanTana-based booking agency folded. Dave Cavazos, the city manager at the time, tasked the city’s Parks, Recreation and Community Services Agency (PRCSA) with continuing both traditions, but they reported feeling a strain on staff leading into 2018. 

“Events are wonderful, but we couldn’t continue producing these two big ones,” says Gerardo Mouet, PRCSA’s executive director. “We had to decide on one and we’re focusing on Fiestas Patrias.” 

The issue first came up for discussion on Jun. 22 during an agency meeting last year. Sonia Batres, a community events organizer with the city, began by deeming the Cinco de Mayo Festival the month before to have been “a success with no major concerns,” according to meeting minutes. But when looking towards next year’s festival, Batres later noted short staffing, tight budgets and negative feedback from the Santa Ana Business Council (SABC) and Downtown Inc. as reasons why the agency would be recommending the event’s “elimination.” Staff echoed the sentiment at subsequent meetings with other boards in October and January. Mouet suggested that any private event producers could take up the Cinco de Mayo Festival in his agency’s place. Obviously, none heeded the call. 

Cinco de Mayo crowds (YouTube screenshot)

When first approached by Cavazos years ago, Mouet had reservations about diverting resources for planning two big festivals but obliged thinking it wouldn’t be a long-term commitment. He used to pull staffers from senior and recreation centers and from parks to run the events. But Protege puts blame for the Cinco de Mayo Festival’s demise squarely on Downtown Inc. and SABC. “Lack of staffing?” Hernandez says. “We obviously don’t believe them.” Protege met with SABC in November and business owners noted complaints about financial losses being the reason. “This is the city trying to cover it up.” 

The activists, who recently organized a Mexican beer bar crawl in SanTana and a “love-in” at El Rincon Mexicano Restaurant in downtown, are calling for a boycott of Cinco de Mayo events still happening on Saturday during Art Walk. The Frida Cinema is showing La Batalla, a film about the holiday. The Copper Door is celebrating  Cinco de Mayo (and its fifth anniversary) with Power 106’s DJ Ever on the wheels of steel for the party. Louis Aragon’s monthly “Dancing in the Streets” event takes over the Spurgeon Paseo with salsa, merengue and bachata. Protege wants people to have none of it given the role Downtown Inc. and SABC played in the street festival’s disappearance. 

Meanwhile, flyers for the Cinco de Mayo Art Walk events in question rest on the cashier desk of Mi Moda Italian Suits on Calle Cuatro. Raul Yanez has owned the business for 39 years and is president of SABC. “For the last few years, everybody on Fourth Street was suffering financially,” Yanez says of both festivals. “Everybody complained about the streets being closed.” His organization conducted a survey of all area business. Yanez reports that only 14 out of 697 businesses surveyed wanted the festivals to continue in their current location. He cites a big example in Northgate Market which reported between $80,000 – $90,000 losses per day during weekend festival street closures.

“We asked the city to take the events out of Fourth Street,” Yanez says. “They listened to us because we talked to them.” And they want more of a say. SABC is currently in talks with the city to have all downtown events vetted with them before permits are granted. 

Protege canvassers approached 13 businesses about the SABC survey recently and claim the shop owners they spoke to hadn’t been asked if they wanted Cinco de Mayo booted or even cancelled. “It wasn’t just an event,” Hernandez says. “This was a huge tradition that’s being going on in Santa Ana. Regardless of downtown being gentrified this event continued for 18 years.” Yanez claims that nobody is being pushed out. If anything, he argues Cinco de Mayo vendors mostly came from out of town and made their money while downtown businesses suffered. 

And SABC isn’t opposed to all street festivals. While it’s no secret gentrifiers loathed such Mexi events in the downtown area going back a decade when Noche de Altares first set up in the parking lot of the Yost Theater to the chagrin of loft dwellers, Yanez wants the Day of the Dead celebration back. “We want Noche de Altares to be on all of Fourth Street, not only to Sycamore,” he says. “A one-day event? We have no problem and it brings business. That’s a good event.” 

Carnival rides (YouTube screenshot)

Mouet acknowledges his agency’s decision provoked mixed reactions, but cites budget constraints as the chief reason for making the call. Event sponsorship didn’t keep up with costs incurred by street closures, police, equipment rentals and entertainment. “It never developed a profit,” Mouet adds. “It was just an investment in community building.” And speaking of event sponsors, the Cinco de Mayo Festival always had a big banner of boosters whether in public or private hands. Last year’s city-run festival featured the sponsorship of Downtown Inc., SABC and the U.S. Army as well as Telemundo and La Ranchera. When MXLive Entertainment produced the event, past flyers displayed logos for Disneyland and Wells Fargo.

Whatever happens on Cinco de Mayo, the dust won’t settle by Fiestas Patrias’ 40th anniversary in September. The city sought to get out of major event planning two years ago. They released a Request for Proposal to find an event producer to partner up with for Fiestas Patrias in 2016 but received no submissions. The city had better luck this time around. Last month, city council approved an agreement with G and C Event Productions with a $75,000 subsidy to handle Fiestas Patrias. Even though the city’s website shows the location for this year’s celebration still to be determined, the event producer is moving the two-day event over by Eddie West Stadium. 

“Cinco de Mayo is not highly celebrated in Mexico,” Mouet says. “It’s more of an American thing. Fiestas Patrias is a bigger deal. It’s just a matter of prioritizing.” 

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