Rain aside, Newark celebrates Cinco de Mayo

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NEWARK — It was a rainy start to Cinco de Mayo, but that didn’t stop dozens of people decending on Halsey Street in downtown Newark for culturally eclectic pre-celebration Thursday night that included mariachi and soul music, ping pong and a bean bag toss, and burgers with salsa and chips.

“Live music, you don’t get this every day. So it’s great,” said Michael De’Von, manager of Cut Creators, a Halsey Street hair salon, who was swaying to a soulful groove laid down by The Jack Moves as he surveyed the street party from the shop’s stoop.

Some people mistake Cinco de Mayo as Mexican Independence Day, and to a large degree the U.S. observance of the May 5 occasion has morphed into an excuse to drink Mexican beer with lime or down margaritas and guacamole.

But the occasion commemorates Mexico’s Battle of Puebla in 1862, an important victory for Mexican nationalist forces resisting French troops trying to topple the regime of President Benito Juarez.

Thursday night’s celebration was sponsored by Hahne & Co and the Halsey Street Merchants Association, to celebrate the first Cinco de Mayo since Hahne’s long-awaited redevelopment into apartments and a retail space with a public atrium.

There were performances by the Mariachi Oro de Mexico band and the Esperanza Azteca Dance Group, though other attractions’ connection to Mexican culture was tenuous at best.

Food included fried chicken, burgers and guacamole and salsa from Whole Foods. There was a was a ping pong table. And a New Jersey Devils booth offered souvenir Nerf-type hockey pucks and an inflatable play area and sticks for kids.

Attendance at the block-long celebration was lucky to break 100 at any given time, a modest head count attributed to the threat if rain.

“It’s pretty cloudy,” said Jose Guadalupe of Union City, a violin player with the mariachi band. “Maybe they thought it was going to rain.”

But that didn’t damper the spirits of those who did turn out.

“Talk that sh– Zack!” yelled an enthusiastic fan of Jack Moves front man Zee Desmondes. Children ran around, while adults gathered around stand-up tables to chat and take in the scene. Unlike many Cinco de Mayo celebrations, this one did not serve any alcohol.

Isabel Uspango, a 10-year-old fourth grader from Union City, whose father, Rafael, plays trumpet with the mariachi band, did not know the origins of Cinco de Mayo.

“All I know is there was a fight,” Uspango said. Between? “Mexico and I have no idea who else.”

France, actually.

Heavily outnumbered Mexican army forces defeated French troops sent by France’s Napolean III to oust the Juarez regime and install a government friendly regime. And despite the Mexican forces’ victory at Puebla, the French campaign was ultimately a success, at least temporarily, resulting in the short-lived Second Mexican Empire headed by Emperor Maximilian I.

But historians consider the May 5 Battle of Puebla a key rallying point that helped coalesce and sustain a Mexican resistance movement that eventually ousted and executed Maximilian after just three years in power, in 1867.

Some historians have suggested that, had the Mexican resistance not persisted, the French might have felt free to back the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War playing out at roughly the same time, and possibly altered the course of U.S. history.

It was news to De’Von, the salon manager.

“I never knew that,” he said.

Steve Strunsky may be reached at sstrunsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveStrunsky. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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