CANNON BEACH — Latin American music echoed in the Cannon Beach School gymnasium while parents and children visited with each other across dinner tables.
Rows of banners, composed of green, white and red plastic squares stretched across the gym, while sombreros and serapes, striped in red, blue, orange and green, hung on the gym’s walls.
Although it was four days early, the Mexican fiesta celebrated Cinco de Mayo in a kind of controlled pandemonium Wednesday evening.
Sponsored by the Cannon Beach Elementary Parent Teacher Organization and local Hispanic families, the event is a joyful celebration of culture and tradition. It offers a vibrant glance at the food, music and traditions of Hispanic culture.
Hilda Pugh, English language assistant at the school, helped participating Hispanic families coordinate the activities.
“It is a very popular event among local Hispanic families,” Pugh said. “It is a chance for them to share their heritage with the people of Cannon Beach.”
Nearly one-third of the school’s 80 students are Hispanic, said school Principal Nicki Thomas.
“This right here is your community,” she said, looking out over about 200 people who attended the event. “This is a family.
“That’s what makes Cannon Beach such a special place,” she added. “These kids have known each other all their lives. Families have known each other all their lives.”
The families put together multiple aspects of the celebration. They prepare authentic food and presentations that include folklore, dance, costumes and games.
Live music was played by Gerardo Calderon and Grupo Condor. The band specializes in a broad array of guitar and various string instruments from Latin America.
It’s hard not to join in the party, no matter what age you are.
“It’s a huge party every year,” said Kelli Truax-Taylor, member of the school’s PTO. “There’s so much music, fun and dancing that everyone has a blast.”
Before the performances began, young Hispanic girls, dressed in long skirts of bright pink and orange and wearing flowers in their upturned hair, chased each other through the crowd and out the gymnasium doors.
An excruciatingly slow line snaked around the side of the gym; those waiting patiently anticipated a plate of hand-made tamales, chicharrones, pozole (a hearty stew), tinga (a spicy tostada with chicken), frijoles (refried beans) and arroz (rice) being served by volunteers.
Beverages included horchata, a refreshing cold drink made of rice, almonds, cinnamon, lime zest and sugar.
But by 6 p.m. – about 20 minutes after the serving began – the tamales were sold out. Groans could be heard down the long line.
“Food is a big part of Hispanic culture,” Pugh said. “The whole process of putting ingredients together, preparing them and serving them is very important.”
All of the parties’ elements combine as a way for members of the Hispanic community of Cannon Beach to share themselves with their neighbors.
“It is their way of introducing their culture to the community,” Pugh said. “They have children who were born in this country, and they want everyone to come together and celebrate.”
Although many might assume that Cinco de Mayo is a celebration of Mexican independence, it’s not. That day is Sept. 16. This festival commemorates the Mexican army’s unexpected victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.
Following dinner, it was time for the kids to perform. The smallest ones started first. Dressed in bright yellow T-shirts and white shorts, they formed a circle in the middle of the gym and wiggled and twisted to a Latin American tune. One by one, each dancer went to the middle of the circle, kicked up their heels and waved their arms, while parents took out their cellphones and clicked photos or made videos.
In another dance, the girls in the long skirts danced with boys dressed in white shirts, red kerchiefs and black 10-gallon hats. They dipped and twirled, and the boys, with their hands behind their backs, danced around the girls, while Condor Grupo played the music.
This year’s party took on added significance, because it is quite possibly the last one that will be held in Cannon Beach. The recent announcement that Cannon Beach Elementary may close in June leaves the event’s future up in the air.
“If the children move to Seaside Heights next year, we hope to continue having the celebration each year,” Pugh said. “It’s a very important part of our community.”
Hector Velazquez and his wife, who came to Cannon Beach from Mexico 20 years ago, have attended nearly all of the Cinco de Mayo celebrations since they started a decade ago. Their two children attended kindergarten through fifth grade there. Now, one is attending Portland Community College, and the other is a senior at Seaside High School.
“We like the food, and we like the performances by the kids,” Velazquez said.
He also wanted to attend what could be the last Cinco de Mayo celebration at that site.
“A lot of people want to keep their memories,” Velazquez said. “It’s the last time the celebration is going to be held here.
“It’s pretty hard,” he added. “My kids came here. Other families were here, and now the little kids are going to Seaside.”
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.