Cinco de Mayo draws thousands in Santa Rosa

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Fourteen-month-old Leo Flores looked up from his stroller and offered a stranger one of his fried wheat pinwheels, or chicharrones de harina.

His mother, Sarah Castillo, pulled out a clear plastic bag of the crisp, salty-savory treats while joining in the 13th annual Cinco de Mayo celebration Saturday in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood. The chicharrones were one of the several delicious finds she had made at the many vendor booths.

“The food is amazing,” said Castillo, a Rohnert Park resident. The choices included Mexican hot dogs wrapped in bacon, jalapeño peppers and onions; churros with chocolate; and a Willie Bird’s barbecued turkey leg that she held up and declared “worth every penny.”

Like Castillo, thousands of festivalgoers showed up Saturday for the annual celebration. Along with tasty food, the day offered a chance to watch bands and other entertainers perform on two stages.

The event has become one of the largest festivals for the Latino community in Sonoma County. This was the first such celebration since Roseland was annexed last year to officially became a part of the city.

For longtime volunteer organizers, the annual gatherings have provided a real benefit to the community, a mostly Latino neighborhood in the southwest part of Santa Rosa.

Before the event began, groups of young adults congregated each Cinco de Mayo in the neighborhood on Sebastopol Road and often ended up confronting sheriff’s deputies and city police. In 2005 the night was marked by violence, including rock throwing and the smashing of windows, despite a major show of force by law enforcement.

Afterward, sheriff’s officials reached out to Roseland leaders to seek their help in organizing a sanctioned event.

“We got together and decided we wanted to run a community event, by community leaders,” and with the aid of sheriff’s officials and other government leaders, said Sylvia Lemus, the festival’s co-director.

Co-director Caroline Banuelos said the collaboration helped build bridges between the community and law enforcement and has turned into a valued cultural event.

“Here’s an example that other communities can try,” she said, noting the committee now includes city police officials.

The first year the festival brought together an estimated 5,000 people. At its peak it drew upwards of 12,000 visitors from around the Bay Area, a record set when organizers brought in some popular regional bands. This year, Lemus said, the crowd would probably range between 7,000 and 10,000.

Before last year’s event, organizers and government leaders heard talk that some people might stay home because of concerns over the Trump administration’s push to deport undocumented immigrants. But those worries proved unfounded, the women said, and this year they didn’t expect such concerns to persist.

“Holding it here in Roseland, I think people feel a little more comfortable,” said Lemus.

The hardest part, said Banuelos, is persuading people to head home when the party ends at 9 p.m.

At Saturday’s gathering on a large parking lot, booths were set up for a wide range of companies and nonprofits. The government institutions on hand included the Roseland School District, Elsie Allen High School, Santa Rosa Junior College, Sonoma County Parks, the Sonoma-Marin Area Regional Transit train and both the Sheriff’s Office and city Police Department.

Outside one of the food booths, 4-year-old Maressa Suarez used a “bubble gun” to send a rapid fire string of bubbles into the air. Vendors around the festival grounds were selling the battery-operated device and other toys.

The girl’s parents, Eliel and Italia Suarez of Alameda, stood nearby helping volunteer at a major food booth operated by their church, La Luz del Mundo, or The Light of the World.

The church, which brought together congregants from Santa Rosa, Alameda, Vallejo and San Francisco, had prepared for sale about 300 tortas ahogadas, a type of sandwich, 400 Mexican-style hot dogs and 500 pupusas, stuffed tortillas.

“And everything sells,” said Italia Suarez. “Everything.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 707-521-5285.

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