Fearing ICE Raids, One of Largest Enclaves of Puebla Immigrants Won’t Celebrate Cinco de Mayo

Lead Photo: PR Newswire
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President Donald Trump’s January 25 executive order – which gives Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) permission to deport a larger number of undocumented immigrants, even those without criminal records – has struck fear across the United States. It’s keeping undocumented immigrants away from doctor’s offices, from reporting crimes to law enforcement, and from church. Many feel they have no choice but to shut themselves in. As a response to the widespread panic taking hold of the country, the organizers of South Philadelphia’s annual Carnaval de Puebla – which attracts thousands of Mexican immigrants from across the US – have canceled the April 30 event out of fear of putting participants and spectators at risk of deportation.

Organizers stress that they didn’t have specific knowledge of a planned raid, but they based their decision on the recent wave of aggressive action against immigrants taken since Trump’s inauguration. “We are canceling the event because of the situation we are currently in,” David Piña, president of San Mateo Carnavalero, told Remezcla. “As an organization responsible for an event in the Mexican community, we want to keep the community away from any type of danger.”

Philadelphia – a city of 1.5 million – is home to 25,000 Mexican nationals. 18,000 of those immigrants are originally from the state of Puebla, according to the city’s Mexican Cultural Center. Most make their home among South Philadelphia’s row houses, which are a short bike ride from the kitchens of Center City’s booming restaurant scene and convenient to construction sites across the country’s fifth-largest city.

As the largest Puebla-style Carnaval in the U.S., the annual Philadelphia parade and festival brings spectators from up and down the East Coast and as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles. The event, which first began in 2006, commemorates the 1862 Battle of Puebla when Mexican forces defeated the invading French army.

Better known north of the border as Cinco de Mayo, this historic victory is a major point of pride across Puebla. It’s also the source of a colorful Carnaval celebration, and many of the city’s Poblano immigrants hail from the small town of San Mateo, which has its own take on the tradition. The Carnavaleros – mostly young, male revelers – dress up in elaborate costumes fashioned after the battalions that fought in Puebla and embroidered with patchwork designs of Aztec gods, hand-stitched Virgin Marys, and quilt-like scenes.

Workers making minimum wage in Philadelphia’s back-of-the-house restaurant and backbreaking construction jobs spend up to $1,000 for these handmade costumes, but they put them to good use on the day of Carnaval when they represent their hometown loudly and proudly. The celebration includes a parade through South Philly’s narrow streets – historically Italian, and more recently a mix of Mexican and Southeast Asian – before emerging onto the wide swath of Washington Avenue. The parade culminates at Sacks Playground with a daylong party featuring a dozen-piece brass band belting out banda tunes, dance performances by young girls in folkloric outfits, and food trucks doing a brisk trade. By the end of the afternoon, most people have stuffed themselves with tacos washed down with Jarritos. And the Carnavaleros have kicked up a dust storm with their dancing.

Piña doesn’t have an estimate on how Carnavaleros are undocumented, but risking the lives of even a few families was not worth proceeding with this year’s event, he said. Still, he insisted that given the exceptional circumstances, the community understood.

“Most are in agreement and said that it’s the right decision,” Piña said, noting the potential economic impact, as the event generates up to $100,000 from the sale of food, drink, and souvenirs. He stressed that organizers’s fear was not so much in the city itself, but rather for possible visitors coming to Philadelphia from elsewhere, where even a speeding ticket can now risk deportation. “We’re protected by the city, but it’s the people coming from afar that we’re worried about,” he said.

The City of Philadelphia, meanwhile, expressed its disappointment. But it insisted its hands were tied when it comes to fending off federal immigration enforcement. In a statement, Mayor Jim Kinney, a vocal proponent of the city’s sanctuary status, said, “I’m devastated to hear that ICE has had such a chilling effect that Philadelphians no longer feel comfortable engaging in this public celebration. While we can’t stop ICE from conducting these raids, I want our immigrant community to know that we want them here, we remain committed to being a 4th Amendment City and protecting these values, and we will do whatever we can to help them feel comfortable bringing this celebration back in the future.”

Piña hopes for the same and expressed optimism that next year will be different. Meanwhile, he is looking ahead to the city’s annual Mummers Parade on New Year’s Day, a Philadelphia folk tradition that the Carnavaleros recently joined at city hall’s invitation. Their presence in the largely white, working-class parade was widely seen as a welcoming outreach move on the part of the City to the Poblano community.

“We know that we have city hall’s support,” Piña said. “We know that we are not alone.”