Written by Arielle Kandel
Religious and ethnic parades, festivals, street fairs, and other events happen all year round across the five boroughs of New York City, and present joyous opportunities for residents to celebrate their identity and heritage, strengthen community bonds, and share their culture with others. Earlier this month, two of NYC’s communities celebrated an important holiday at the very same time.
One of these holidays, you may have guessed, was the Cinco de Mayo, celebrated every year in hundreds of cities and towns across the United States. The oldest and most important celebrations are held in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and in other cities in the US Southwest, home to large Mexican communities and where the holiday originated. While Mexican flags are commonly waved in hundreds at Cinco de Mayo parades, the celebration shouldn’t be confused with Mexico’s Independence Day. It is observed to commemorate the Battle of Puebla of May 5, 1862, when the Mexican army won an unlikely and decisive victory over French forces. “Far up in the gold country town of Columbia,” a professor at UCLA writes, Mexican miners were so happy at the news of the Mexican army’s victory over the French in Puebla “that they spontaneously fired off rifles shots and fireworks, sang patriotic songs and made impromptu speeches.” Along the years, the holiday grew in popularity and became a way for Mexican Americans to celebrate their culture and heritage. From the 1980s it also increasingly started to appeal to non-Mexican Americans, as beer and liquor companies, especially, began to promote it. In 2005, the US Congress passed a resolution recognizing the “historical significance of the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo,” and serving “as a reminder that the foundation of the United States is built by people from many nations and diverse cultures who are willing to fight and die for freedom.”
Within recent decades, the population boom of Mexican immigrants in New York City has made them the third largest ethnic group, after immigrants from the Dominican Republic and China. According to the latest statistics available, there are close to 200,000 Mexican-born residents in New York, forming over 2 percent of the city’s total population, and many more children and grandchildren of Mexican immigrants. The most densely Mexican-populated neighborhoods in New York City include Queen’s Corona and the surrounding neighborhoods of Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, Brooklyn’s Bushwick and Sunset Park, and the Washington Heights and East Harlem in Upper Manhattan.
This year in New York, one way to celebrate Cinco de May was to enjoy a Mexican bite or refreshing cocktail at one of the dozens of restaurants and bars advertising special menus and beverages in honor of the holiday.
Members of the Mexican community and other more curious New Yorkers were also able to enjoy and participate in one of the many cultural events that were offered over the weekend preceding the holiday, falling this year on Monday, and in the following days. In Queens, the Flushing Town Hall and Queens Museum hence proposed activities for families and kids, including piñata making and music workshops, performances by traditional Mariachi dance groups from Mexico, storytelling, and more. In Manhattan, the traditional Cinco de Mayo parade took place in the Upper West Side on Sunday, May 4. As I got closer to the starting point of the parade, Central Park West disappeared under a sea of green, white, and red flags, with the sounds of music and singing filling the air. Mariachi bands with colorful costumes danced down the street, and onlookers on the sidelines, Mexicans and other New Yorkers alike, cheered and clapped their hands. Many come every year, as to a camp or school reunion, to catch up with relatives and friends.
As the parade drew to a close, it was just the right time for me to head out to another commemoration starting at sundown, Yom HaZikaron or Israel’s official Memorial Day, which happened to fall this year on the very same date of the Cinco de Mayo. The Israeli community in New York is of course much smaller than the Mexican community – according to the latest data available, there are around 30,000 Israeli adults living in the New York area, including the five boroughs, Westchester, and Long Island. But it shares its Jewish ethnic and religious identity and heritage with American Jews, who number over 1.5 million people in New York alone – making it the world’s second largest Jewish city, after metropolitan Tel Aviv.
Yom HaZikaron pays homage to Israeli fallen soldiers and civilian victims of political violence and terrorism since the earliest waves of settlement in the Biblical Land in the late 19th century. In Israel, the commemoration starts at sunset with the ringing of a one-minute siren. Israelis throughout the country virtually stop everything and stand in silence, commemorating the fallen and showing respect. Another two-minute siren is sounded at eleven the following morning, marking the opening of official memorial ceremonies and private remembrance gatherings at cemeteries. Radio stations and TV channels play sad music throughout the day. Yom HaZikaron draws to a close at sunset, when it makes transition to a joyous celebration, Yom HaAtzmaut or Israel’s Independence Day. At official celebrations, melancholic songs and candles make place for fireworks, loud music, and dance. Having these two days immediately follow each other is a powerful symbol, intended to remind Israelis and Jews of the price paid for the establishment of the Jewish state, while rejoicing and valuing freedom and independence all the more intensely.
Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut are also celebrated outside of Israel, although there more emphasis is usually put on cheerful celebrations for Israel’s Independence Day. Still, at the Israeli Consulate in New York, a Memorial Day service was attended by hundreds of people on Sunday night, including Israeli families living in New York, American Jews, and others. And as for the Cinco de Mayo, the days preceding and following the holiday were also the occasion for communities and local organizations across the city to offer a variety of cultural and social events. In the Upper West Side, a stronghold of the Israeli and Jewish community, synagogues, schools, and Jewish organizations organized for the second year in a row a wide range of activities for the community to come together, learn about the rich and complex culture and history of Israel, and celebrate. In Riverdale in the Bronx, another neighborhood home to a substantial Jewish population, the Bronx Israel Independence Day proposed Israeli dancing, food, and other performances and festivities. In Brooklyn, for the first time more than a dozen Jewish organizations came together to host an ambitious weeklong celebration, with films, lectures, parties, and many more cultural events.The highlight of the week was a much-anticipated concert by the Idan Raichel Project, an Israeli singer and musician blending traditional Hebrew texts with Arab and Ethiopian sounds into an enthralling experience.
The Cinco de Mayo and Yom HaZikaron/Yom HaAtzmaut celebrations, although celebrated by two very different communities, have much in common: they are a way for members of these communities to strengthen inner bonds, and to share with other residents the importance of, and their pride in their historic, ethnic, cultural, and sometimes religious heritage.
As we continue our exploration of New York City’s ethnic neighborhoods and immigrant communities in the coming weeks and months, we’ll have other opportunities to discover ethnic and cultural processions, festivals, and other events. In the mean time, stay tuned for next week’s post, which will delve into past and present-day Norwood, a little-known neighborhood in the Bronx.