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Thousands of revelers poured into the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa on Tuesday night for the Cinco de Mayo Festival, an event that after 10 years appears to have solidified its reputation as a family- friendly celebration of community and culture.

Dancers in colorful costumes occupied one stage while musicians took another to entertain the large crowd. The savory smells of tortillas frying in pans and meats sizzling over hot grills wafted over the venue’s setting in the former Roseland Shopping Center on Sebastopol Road near Dutton Avenue.

Organizers were expecting a higher-than-usual turnout of as many as 12,000 people. They had more room to roam this year, thanks to space created by the demolition of the old bowling alley and Albertson’s supermarket.

“This is something special,” said Colombia-born Gina Klemen. “I love to watch the dancers. And of course, the food.”

Her husband, Rodolfo Damian, hoisted a large Mexican flag.

“I carry it with a lot of pride,” he said in Spanish.

Police reported no major problems tied to the festival prior to it ending at 9 p.m. and Sebastopol Road being re-opened to traffic.

That the festival appears to have settled into a familiar and fun routine strikes many long-time observers of the event as something of a minor miracle, given the event’s debut in 2006 after four straight years of May 5 mayhem and violence in Roseland.

The unsanctioned gatherings turned Roseland into a battleground every May 5, pitting unruly celebrants against dozens of law enforcement officers in riot gear. Officers routinely deployed pepper spray and other non-lethal weapons to try and disperse the crowds, who fired back with rocks and whatever else they had at hand.

Efforts to clamp down harder on unruly celebrants and steer people to Santa Rosa’s sanctioned Cinco de Mayo event at the Finley Center instead appeared to further fan the unrest.

Change finally came in 2005, when community leaders and law enforcement, including former Sonoma County Sheriff Bill Cogbill, spearheaded efforts to bring a sanctioned Cinco de Mayo festival to Roseland to try and overcome the legacy of violence.

The group met at the sheriff’s office to plot strategy, including how to pay for the event. The meetings also led to a frank exchange of the concerns and suspicions that some felt contributed to the previous holiday violence.

Arnie Barragan, who was then a community organizer for St. Joseph Health, described misconceptions by law enforcement that a gathering of Latinos constituted a “threat,” and people in the community thinking a police presence automatically led to harassment.

He said another key element of the planning process was city and county officials working with the community as partners, instead of just dictating terms.

Still, success was far from guaranteed on the night the new festival debuted.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Georgina Warmoth, an early festival organizer, said.

But the event was a success, and on Tuesday night, all the drama of a decade ago was nowhere in sight. Even the police officers and sheriff’s deputies who were on hand freely mingled with the crowd.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder, a veteran of the Cinco de Mayo violence, said his department had the normal number of officers on duty Tuesday night.

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“We don’t have any more staff because it’s not necessary,” Schreeder said as he mingled with the crowd Tuesday.

Diana McLean made note of how the festival has become a welcoming cultural celebration for the wider community. “I like the way it’s changed,” she said.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes Roseland, described the festival as a “complete transformation” over what Cinco de Mayo used to be in Santa Rosa.

“This is a demonstration of a community committed to having family-oriented celebrations,” he said.

Irving Resendiz, who helped members of his family fry up gorditas and other treats at a booth named after their recently opened Santa Rosa restaurant, the Salsa Zone, said the event helps foster unity among those of Mexican heritage.

“Instead of violence, it’s more like a party, and coming together,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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