West Side Story

The rich 35-year history of Minnesota’s largest Cinco de Mayo festival.

Standing in the middle of Cesar Chavez Street during the Cinco de Mayo festival on Saint Paul’s West Side is like standing in the busy market streets of Mexico. Tiny girls stomp their heels and dance folk-style in large hooped dresses on stage. Boulevards and squares are festooned with Mexican flags, while members of the local Latino business community move along the parade route smiling and waving. Street vendors and restaurants offer tacos and corn in cups, washed down with cold margaritas and lemonade. There’s the buzz of Spanish intermixed with English, and the traditional splashes of red, white, and green cover any available surface. In a good year, the sunshine is warm, making you forget all about the snow covering the ground just a few months (or days) ago.

The organized chaos, the bright colors, the delicious cuisine—it’s a little piece of Mexico right here in Minnesota, every first weekend in May for the past 35 years. Hosted and organized by the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation (SPFHF) since 2010, Saint Paul’s annual celebration is the largest Cinco de Mayo festival in the state, drawing 25,000 to 40,000 visitors every year to the area known as District del Sol.

Before the giant entertainment stages and big-name sponsors, before the 25-person planning committee and the thousands of visitors flooding the streets, the Cinco de Mayo festival was just a single block of Latino-owned businesses wanting to celebrate their heritage while drawing people to the West Side. Alfredo Frias, whose family owns the St. Paul institution Boca Chica Restaurant and Cantina, remembers sitting in a room with other West Side business owners all those years ago, when the Cinco de Mayo festival was just an idea formed by the Riverview Economic Development Association (REDA). The association’s goal was to help cement an identity for their neighborhood and encourage economic development in the area.

“The idea was to do something here—a festival on this side of town—to bring people to the West Side and chat. We had a large Mexican community [and] we thought Cinco de Mayo was a great way to celebrate,” says Frias. A few local businesses—Concord Drug Store, El Burrito Market, Boca Chica Restaurant, to name a few—eagerly signed up. Over the years, the festival morphed into a multi-block, multi-day annual celebration with elements like the parade and the 5K race slowly incorporated into the festivities. Six years ago, however, REDA disbanded due to funding constraints. In an effort to keep the festival alive, the St. Paul Festival and Heritage Foundation (SPFHF), which also operates the St. Paul Winter Carnival, took up the mantle—making a few necessary changes.

“We took it to a smaller footprint, so it [would continue to] be healthy, and continue to grow. We’re trying to grow it back up responsibly,” says Rosanne Bump, president of the foundation. Although no longer a multi-day festival, Cinco de Mayo on the West Side has maintained its festive presence, as a one-day celebration with entertainment stages, concession stands, a parade and even a car show.

The festival is divided into multiple themed zones. There’s the family zone, for example, where kids can enjoy bouncy houses and cultural activities, and the sports zone, which offers free skills clinics and other athletic activities featuring professional and amateur Minnesotan sports organizations. It also includes a community village, where you can find authentic placita marketplace wares, and live performance stages that feature mariachi bands, local radio DJs and traditional-dance groups. At the entertainment stages you can find various contests going on throughout the day—a jalapeño-eating competition, couples from the audience participating in dance contests, even men yodeling the traditional Mexican el grito at the top of their lungs.

Although there are big-name sponsors tied to a large number attractions—Metro PCS, Malt-o-Meal, and US Bank have helped fund portions of the festival in the past few years— the origin of Cinco de Mayo on the West Side has not been forgotten.

Back in 1999, you could find Steve Palacio volunteering as an on-and-off chairperson for the REDA-organized Cinco de Mayo festival. Last year, Bump asked him to join the committee as chair once more, seeking help in rebuilding the festival to its previous glory while retracing its roots as a means of showing off the best of what the West Side has to offer—its businesses and community.

“It was a great opportunity to jump back in and bring what I had,” says Palacio, “I loved getting involved with the celebration. That’s my heritage, I have family within the area. I wanted to give back to the community here.”

This year, Palacio returns once again, making efforts to involve the local community by partnering with businesses within District del Sol. “In fact, [last] year we made it a point, as a committee, to walk into each store within the footprint of the celebration and personally invite them to be part of the festival,” says Palacio.

Because of efforts like these, you’ll see familiar District del Sol names as part of the day’s activities. Last year, Karina’s Beauty Salon, WestSide Haircare and Martha’s Closet put on a fashion show on the demonstration stage, Boca Chica Restaurant hosted a ceviche preparation demonstration and El Burrito held a burrito-eating contest.

With more than 125 vendors involved in the celebration, it takes careful coordination to make sure every aspect of the festival comes together as it should. Different coordinators are assigned to each zone and—with a little of their own creativity thrown in—they follow the guidelines set out in a go-to binder designed for their specific area, adding their own ideas and changes for next year’s coordinator to pick up where they left off.

“Planning never really ends,” says Bump. Committee members meet once a month throughout the year, with more frequent weekly meetings as the event gets closer. Many hear about the committee through past members; others are local business owners. Last year, even the Mexican consulate reached out with a wish to be a part of the annual tradition. Carolina Maranon, who works as assistant to the Consul and Cultural Affairs, got involved as the head of the History and Photo area, noting that she wished to bring an element of education to the festival.

“It was a good opportunity to [emphasize] the real importance of the date and brief story of the [festival over the] past years,” says Maranon. “It’s very different the way Mexican-Americans celebrate it compared to people in Mexico, but it’s a big part of the community here in Saint Paul.”

The history area allows visitors not only to read up on the historic battle in Puebla, Mexico, that occurred on the date, but also features a display including historic photos and information about the previous Cinco de Mayo festivals on the West Side. While in the history area, people can also jump into the interactive photo booth to snap pics, making their own Cinco de Mayo memories.

“[We wanted to] help people understand what Cinco de Mayo is and how the West Side plays a part in that,” says Palacio, who encouraged Maranon to get creative when she displayed interest in bringing back the area, which had been dissolved in the transition between REDA and SPFHF.

Another community member eager to be a part of the festivities is a familiar name in the District del Sol. A West-Sider born and raised, Jose Frias—Alfredo Frias’ son—grew up attending the festival which, year after year, filled the streets surrounding their family restaurant. The Frias family, who started their business in 1964 with only six tables filling their restaurant, have seen the Cinco de Mayo festival morph from a block of Latino-owned businesses trying to create an identity for their neighborhood into the lively, packed community event it is today.

“I remember watching the parade, going down and playing the games, going on rides, and seeing all the beautiful people [celebrating] their heritage,” says the younger Frias, who now runs the day-to-day operations of Boca Chica and is an SPFHF board member.

The ever-evolving tradition passed down through organizations and generations has also taken on new meaning for the West Side. With more and more visitors each year, those involved in organizing the festival recognize the importance not only of supporting local businesses but of using the opportunity to educate the public on the Mexican heritage and culture.

“The best part of the festival in this area is that we do it in good taste. It has structure and it has education,” says Jose Frias. “I cannot speak more highly about the direction that we’re going with this festival. We aim to make it not just about music and food. It’s more than that. It’s about coming and actually learning something.”

Special thanks to Marina Castillo, who took the photos in this feature. Read more about Marina in an upcoming issue of Saint Paul Magazine.