Festival reaches turning point in Milton-Freewater

The Cinco de Mayo celebration is taking a year off, which the founder sees as potentially positive.


MILTON-FREEWATER -- Santos Garcia is not upset, not really.

That the city's tradition of celebrating Cinco de Mayo on an early May weekend won't happen this year does not mean failure, he said.

Volunteers have not stepped forward this year as they have in times past, explained Cheryl York, executive director of the Milton-Freewater Chamber of Commerce. The organization has helped facilitate the festival for decades. "It's been a tradition. It's the oldest one in the state of Oregon, I've been told."

If anyone has the right to display complacency at the turn of events, it's Garcia.

As the founder of the area's annual festival, he has watched the local Cinco de Mayo ebb and flow since the year it was birthed.

It was 1976 and the lone event was a soccer match between the Walla Walla Aztecs and Whitman College, he said. While very simple, "it was the only festivities for Hispanics."

At least for the younger generations, soccer seemed to be the answer. The tournament happened three years in a row before the group lost momentum and people got busy with other things, said Garcia, owner of Santos Saddle Shop.

"But in 1982, in Milton-Freewater, there was one white man who got killed by a Hispanic ... that was when some local people, Hispanic and white, formed the Valley Cultural Awareness Committee."

Just a few months later, a Hispanic was killed by an Anglo, and city and agency officials and volunteers sought guidance from a representative from the U.S. Department of Justice, the saddle maker recalled.

"He came and met with us and recommended our city have some Hispanic festivities, so we decided to have Cinco de Mayo."

The event restarted in its current form in 1983.

The festival -- not always held on the fifth of May, but on the weekend before or after -- has grown, said Garcia, who has coached soccer at all the local colleges and at Walla Walla High School. Soccer teams began coming from all over the region, followed by fans who dream of playing in the tournament. "The coaches respect the tournament, the referees do the best they can and the crowd even stays under control."

In recent years participants have included a women's soccer league from Walla Walla, he noted. "That's a big accomplishment, especially in the Hispanic community."

Vendors started depending on the event as a chance to promote their business. Entertainment became a community highlight and each year a teenaged queen has been crowned at a lively dance.

Saturday mornings have seen Cinco de Mayo parades filled with costumes and children and music.

It took the efforts of many groups to make it happen, Garcia said. The Chamber of Commerce provided organizational oversight while the Heritage Club at McLoughlin High School did much of the on-the-ground work.

Two things came into play this year to tie the school's hands," said Jay Rodighiero, vice principal at mac-Hi. "There were fewer students in the Heritage Club and that advisor ended up on maternity leave sooner than expected."

The high school will celebrate the holiday in-house this year, he added.

Celia Guardado was waiting for Cinco de Mayo notice to come in the mail right up until last week, she said.

Guardado owns Tino's Grill and Sports Cafe on main Street and a taco truck that has been a regular vendor at the festival for years, she said.

Business has always been good for food sellers and she's come to count on the extra income. But even more, she treasures the importance of the event in underlining community spirit, Guardado said.

She plans to step forward for next year to offer willing hands and has commissioned family members to do the same. "If it is a matter of getting someone involved, count me in. I just don;t want to see this disappear."

Things happen for a reason, Garcia surmised. He's of an age to understand that sometimes things must be lost before they can be treasured. And resurrected, he pointed out.

While racial tension has calmed from the turbulent days that spawned Cinco de Mayo celebrations here, there remain some divisions and "different ways of thinking" between the two primary cultures in the city, Garcia said.

"Back then we needed to have something to unite the community and we did it."

Missing a year of the festival is a good experience for everybody, he said. "A lot of young people, they don't know how much this means to the community. It is actually the only thing I think the Hispanics feel is part of them."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.


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