Supporters Still Celebrate Cinco de Mayo Holiday Despite Swine Flu Fears

Michelle Obama marks the holiday yesterday with students at Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School in Northwest D.C.
Michelle Obama marks the holiday yesterday with students at Latin American Montessori Bilingual Public Charter School in Northwest D.C. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
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By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Mexican Embassy has canceled the mariachis that were booked for its Cinco de Mayo celebration this evening. No margaritas either, just wine. And privately, some partygoers are confessing it seems like folly to attend a crowded, enclosed event with people who might have just returned from Mexico.

But ask not whether to party or not to party, for on Cinco de Mayo, party one must -- just this year with a little restraint, and plenty of hand sanitizer.

Guys in bright suits and big hats blowing trumpets with awesome gusto -- all the reasons we love mariachi music -- might strike the wrong chord while influenza rages back home. Fair enough.

But wine for Cinco de Mayo? That's like sake for Saint Patrick's Day, beer for Bastille Day, vodka for the Fourth of July. Things are seriously unsettled, people.

On the other hand, count it a victory of the Mexican spirit that the embassy party is taking place at all, at the Mexican Cultural Institute on 16th Street NW, with food, fellowship and awards for civic service making up for the missing mariachis and margaritas.

Hard to say whether the event will be jammed with the usual standing-room-only attendance. Some attendees feel guilty and paranoid even admitting any fears over swine flu -- and the embassy reports only a handful of regrets.

"We're going to have the event that we normally have, but without the festive tone," says Ricardo Alday, embassy spokesman. "We didn't want to send a wrong signal by canceling it."

Similarly, the big annual Latino professionals' networking event this evening -- slogan: "Feed your inner Mexican!" -- is on track to draw the usual crowd of about 600 lawyers, lobbyists, Hill staffers and business people to the Park at Fourteenth restaurant downtown. The Coronas and PatrĂ³n Reposado tequila are free from 5 to 6 p.m. and discounted after that. "Cowboy boots and gauchos aren't necessary, but having a good time is!" says the online flier.

Swine flu might come up in conversation, as perhaps an awkward icebreaker, says Christopher Bowie, an organizer of the event. He's not Latino himself, but Cinco de Mayo has never required its celebrants to pass an ethnic litmus test. He's more worried about the weather than the flu cutting turnout. (The situation was bleaker in New York City, where the annual festival in Queens that draws tens of thousands was abruptly postponed Sunday.)

Yesterday, on what was technically Cuatro de Mayo, President Obama invited Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan and other Latino dignitaries to the White House to get the party started early.

"We are a day early, but we always like to get a head start here at the Obama White House. . . . But even as we mark this joyous and festive occasion, we do so mindful of the fact that this is a difficult time for Mexico," Obama said.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. What is Cinco de Mayo, anyway? There's got to be more to it than those "Corona de Mayo" beer displays at the supermarket. Before we get to the tequila, then, a simple multiple-choice question. Cinco de Mayo is:

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