by Sheri Boggs

What is Cinco de Mayo exactly? A bueno excuse for drinking one's volume in margaritas at the nearest watering hole? A catchy Liz Phair song? Or is it the Mexican version of our Fourth of July? Well, while it is the first two things, surprisingly, that last one it is not.

"Cinco de Mayo confuses a lot of people," says Dr. Barbara Loste, professor of Spanish at Whitworth College and curator of the Espiritu de Mexico exhibit at the Lorinda Knight Gallery this month. "It's celebrated by people of Mexican-American heritage for one thing, but people often think of it as Mexican Independence Day, which it isn't. That's celebrated on September 16."

So if Cinco de Mayo, May 5, isn't Mexican Independence Day, what is it?

"It's the commemoration of a small battle in 1862 in the town of Puebla, which is about 80 miles southeast of Mexico City," explains Loste. "The French had invaded just before 1862. And their army was much more advanced. But in Puebla, they were confronted by an indigenous, unarmed people, who were really at a disadvantage. And these indigenous, unarmed people, they won. It was really an amazing thing. So Cinco de Mayo celebrates the winning of that battle, but they lost the war. And as people started moving away, many of them to America, they took this with them. It's a holiday celebrated by Mexican expatriates."

In the Inland Northwest, this looks to be one of the richest Cinco de Mayo celebrations in recent memory. In addition to all the usual enticements at area eateries and bars (and if you've never had the fish tacos at Far West Billiards, you really must give them a try), there are also art exhibits, concerts, speakers, dancers and more. In short, cultural food.

The Espiritu de Mexico exhibit at the Lorinda Knight Gallery brings together seven contemporary Mexican photographers, all of whom have one thing in common.

"I found out that the Visiting Artist Lecture series was bringing Graciela Iturbide to town. She's really one of the most well known photographers in Mexico," says Loste. "And I thought, 'How great would it be to get some of her art here?' "

While Loste wasn't able to get Iturbide's art scheduled, she was able to book seven of Iturbide's photographer friends, whom she calls the "next half generation or so of great Mexican photographers."

The images in the show represent vastly different faces of Mexico, from the computer generated collage work of Marisol Fernandez to Jose Hernandez-Claire's introspective studies of farm laborers. Some of the most affecting images are the most simple, for instance Carlos Contreras' elegantly composed shots of animals both living, and in the process of becoming meat.

Getting the show to Spokane was no small feat, but Loste and Knight had considerable help.

"The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture has been a fabulous help," says Knight. "They've done all the framing, they handled all the details of getting the photos through the border."

The exhibit is originating in Spokane and then moves on to Phoenix and Seattle. The opening reception on May 4, from 6-8 pm, will include music by Los Campesinos de Michoacan, which will later play at The Met for EWU's Canto Al Pueblo. Loste will do the gallery talk at 11 am the next day, and even the gallery will be transformed.

"There will be these wonderful cut paper banners hanging throughout the gallery, so it won't be the plain white box it usually is," laughs Knight.

Canto Al Pueblo, the name of the show on Friday night at The Met, translates as "song to the community," and Carlos Maldonado, director of Chicano studies at EWU, says it will be just that.

"What we're wanting Canto Al Pueblo to be is a two-fold thing," Maldonado explains. "The Cinco de Mayo tradition at EWU is a long one. It's something we've been doing for 25 or more years. So we want to continue to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a cultural context. And then our other aim is to create a cultural arts event that establishes itself as a tradition in Spokane."

Canto Al Pueblo, which is at 6:30 pm (Tickets $12; call 325-SEAT), consists of three performing groups: Mariachi Huenachi, two-time National Mariachi Grand Championship winners from Wenatchee; Xipe Totec, which performs ancient Aztec ritual dances to the accompaniment of indigenous instruments; and Los Campesinos de Michoacan, which specializes in rural Mexican traditional music and has performed on NPR and at Seattle's Northwest Folklife Festival.

The concert finishes a full week of Cinco de Mayo activities at EWU. Other events in the Inland Northwest include a faculty recital with Mark Stanton, solo guitar, at Holy Names (7 pm on May 5), and a Cinco de Mayo festival at the University of Idaho. Two decades ago there were rarely Cinco de Mayo celebrations in this area, but now it seems to have become a bona fide event. Maldonado, who is himself a big part of why Cinco de Mayo is so popular here, knows why.

"There are local people -- Wayne Larson, Vicki Countryman, Lorinda Knight, for instance -- who are actively promoting diversity in Spokane, which is often perceived as isolated in terms of diversity," he says. "It's an enduring tradition, and it's gratifying to see it spreading to other areas."

Maldonado points to the fact that the region's growing Chicano/Latino population is also a contributing factor. "The demographics of the Chicano/Latino population have really grown on state and national levels," says Maldonado. "But we want to assert that we're not separate communities, we have different traditions, but we're also a part of the greater community. Wherever we go, we want to celebrate our culture and affirm our own sense of community."

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