Cinco de Mayo: an opportunity to discover Mexican culture in Boston

David Machado Photography (for Veronica Robles Cultural Center)

By Shana Singh
Boston University News Service 

Cinco de Mayo means tacos, guacamole, and margaritas for many who celebrate the holiday in the United States. But in Mexico, few people observe the historic date by partying and drinking. 

Also known as the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla, the day commemorates Mexico’s 1862 military victory over the French Empire and Napoleon III in the Franco-Mexican War. The date’s significance is often mistaken as Mexican Independence Day, which occurs on Sept. 16. 

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is mainly celebrated in the state of Puebla, where the battle occurred. Since it is not a federal holiday, the rest of the country attends work and school as normal.

Veronica Robles, executive director of the Veronica Robles Cultural Center, said Cinco de Mayo was an “Americanized celebration” and that the organization does not host any specific events.

Instead, they focus on “teaching and promoting Mexican culture and traditions all year long,” she said. 

Located in East Boston, VROCC has served over 40,000 people since its 2013 founding. Many of these community members have immigrated from various Latin American countries, such as from Mexico to Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, according to Robles. 

“While engaging people of all backgrounds, VROCC serves as a welcoming entry point for Latino, immigrant families,” said Robles. “Placing value on preserving cultural ties, VROCC provides culturally affirming programming, and offers a safe space where Spanish-speaking immigrants to Greater Boston feel valued, accepted and at home.”

The VROCC holds classes, performances, and celebrations to promote Latino arts and cultures. Some of these classes include dance, art, and music lessons open to children and adolescents. Adults can take advantage of cultural activities, festive events, and networking opportunities. 

“Our arts programming forms a protective aegis that directly supports the Boston Cultural Plan’s call to increase ‘equitable recognition and respect for diverse cultural heritages and artistic practices,’ while we increase exposure and recognition of both neighborhood cultural assets and artwork representative of diverse cultures,” said Robles, about the organization’s primary goals.

Even though VROCC does not officially organize Cinco de Mayo events, it holds the largest celebrations of Mexican Independence and Dia de Los Muertos in the New England area. This year’s Dia de Los Muertos event will include a parade and festival in East Boston on Oct. 30. 

In Boston, an estimated 18.7% of the city’s total population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2020 census. This category includes people from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Colombia, and Mexico. Almost half of Latinos in Boston are foreign-born immigrants. 

According to July 2021 census data, 12.4% of people in Massachusetts are Hispanic or Latino. The cities of Lawrence, Chelsea, and Holyoke have the highest number of Latino residents. 

Josaphat Contreras, director of arts and culture administration at VROCC, said that truly authentic Latin American foods and cultures are lacking in Boston and can be hard to find.

Still, Bostonians looking to experience authentic Mexican culture may find it at restaurants if they make their way to East Boston, where most of Boston’s Latin American population lives. 

“So much of the richness of VROCC comes from the fact that we are located in East Boston where there is authentic Mexican food like Taqueria Jalisco and many other restaurants,” said Contreras, when asked where Bostonians can find Mexican culture. “But the Mass. Pike is the main access to East Boston so it’s not always easy for everyone to come to this side of town.” 

The VROCC recently celebrated Children’s Day on April 30, another Mexican holiday. The center will also host a showcase on June 18, featuring cultural performances from its classes.

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