Historically, Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Battle of Puebla, when a ragtag force of townsfolk and Mexican soldiers under the direction of Benito Juárez, the country's first indigenous president, held the French invasion of Napoleon III at bay in 1862. Revived in the '70s by Chicano student activists, the day has become both a symbolic reminder of the cultural contributions of Mexican-Americans and a festive excuse for gringos to throw back margaritas. There's no better way to celebrate it than at one of the megaparties happening throughout the Bay Area.
With the Fruitvale Montgomery Ward building finally reduced to rubble -- making way for two new schools and the construction of a transit village at the Fruitvale BART station -- this Cinco de Mayo offers the Mexican-immigrant community in Oakland a reason to strut its orgullo (pride). The Oakland Cinco de Mayo Parade & Festival includes two stages of traditional and popular music. The daylong gran fiesta kicks off Saturday with a parade at 10 a.m. followed by a community celebration at noon at International Boulevard, E. 14th Street & Fruitvale, Oakland. Admission is free; call (510) 869-3933.
While you're in the East Bay, give some long-overdue props to two artist-activists, Juana Alicia and Emmanuel C. Montoya, honored with a collaborative exhibit running through June 1. Co-founder of the East Bay Center for Urban Arts, Alicia is a gifted muralist. Montoya, known for his brilliant prints and installations fused with political commentary, teaches art in the California prison system. Say "¡Viva!" to them at a public reception that includes the sexy salsa sounds of Gary Flores & Salsa Caliente, starting at 6 p.m. Saturday at Chi Gallery, 912A Clay (at Ninth Street), Oakland. Admission is free; call (510) 832-4244.
El Vez, the self-named "Mexican Elvis," swings his pelvis like the real deal, putting Ricky What's-his-face to shame. Covering classic Elvis tunes, the Latin lounge lizard croons Spanglish lessons on Mexican and American history with the help of his backup babes, the Elvettes, and his band, the Memphis Mariachis. The King lives on at 9 p.m. Saturday at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), S.F. Admission is $15; call 885-0750.
The party continues on Sunday with the San Francisco Cinco de Mayo Parade & Festival. The Mission Economic Cultural Association throws one of the biggest old-school fiestas with three entertainment stages (one with a mini-merengue festival) and a classic lowrider car show. The parade begins at 10 a.m. on Mission (at 24th Street) followed by the festival at noon at Civic Center Plaza, Polk & McAllister, S.F. Admission to the festival is $5; call 826-1401.
Organized by the educational community center Adelante, the decades-old Berkeley Cinco de Mayo party, also on Sunday, is probably the most socially conscious in the Bay Area. Beginning with a traditional blessing of the ground by Azteca indigenous dancers, the family affair teems with local speakers and the rump-shaking tunes of Dr. Loco's Rockin' Jalapeño Band. The party continues from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, Center & MLK Jr. Way, Berkeley. Admission is free; call (510) 549-0232.