The multifaceted Cinco de Mayo Omaha event includes elements typical to Cinco de Mayo celebrations around the country: a Saturday parade (one of the largest in the region), a wide array of ethnic and American food, a beer garden, various vendors representing business and nonprofits around the city, family-friendly activities, and live entertainment including two concerts featuring nationally known acts.
But the Omaha event has many unique features, too, like an education conference taking place several weeks before the festival; the Little Miss, Junior Miss and Miss Cinco de Mayo pageant; a historical exhibit at the new South Omaha Museum; a career expo; a health fair; a mariachi mass and a Christian service on Sunday morning; and even a boxing tournament.
The public sees Cinco de Mayo Omaha as a fun, three-day spring festival, but the planning actually begins half a year earlier with a small core staff launching a long list of administrative tasks like applying for various permits, securing sponsorships, budgeting, and booking entertainment.
Bianca Salazar-Chavez, a University of Nebraska-Omaha student intern, began working with the Little Miss/Junior Miss/ Miss Cinco de Mayo pre-events months ago. She says she’s enjoyed watching the 28 Little Miss/Junior Miss/Miss candidates gain confidence through a series of activities that started in December, from photo sessions to life skills workshops that will culminate in a coronation on Friday, May 5. “We track attendance and participation, which counts toward the final score,” she says. The girls learn about their Mexican heritage and practice public speaking skills in Spanish as well as English, but they also go on social outings and make new friends.
“They have a lot of fun and it’s exciting for them,” Salazar- Chavez says.
Another important role Salazar-Chavez serves is coordinating marketing and social media, which started last fall.
“I like the people I work with and I’m getting experience under my belt,” she says. The work has helped her polish her time management skills and also it’s an opportunity to communicate in both English and Spanish, she added. “There are not a lot of people at my level in school who can say they’ve helped with such a big event.”
As Cinco de Mayo draws closer the number of people involved expands from the handful of people who make up the basic administrative team to a group of volunteers that reaches past 100. Volunteer Coordinator Anadelia Lamas Morgan says volunteer hours easily exceed 300, and although “we have a great response from Latino organizations,” anyone is welcome to volunteer who simply wants to serve the community. Volunteers help with numerous tasks for the festival, which stretches across several city blocks. They may be asked set up tables and chairs at vendor booths, hang banners, pick up trash in the street, visit 24th-Street businesses to communicate event logistics, help vendors and participants haul material, assist with traffic and crowd control, and execute any number of random and unexpected errands. “They are super-helpful,” Morgan says.
The festive atmosphere is a bonus. “Some volunteers drop in while they’re at the event, and then they stay and enjoy the festival,” she says. “It’s like a big family party. It’s hard to come to this festival and not run into people you know.”
A substantial portion of the volunteer force are students, Morgan adds, and they’re from high schools and colleges all over the city. “It’s important for them to show they’re doing good things in the community and being positive role models,” she says.
Not only do many young volunteers return in subsequent years, some eventually become involved at a deeper level later. For instance, Marcos Mora, who oversees the comprehensive event planning, began as a college volunteer. Morgan first served the event with her college sorority. For Anna Hernandez-Valencia, Cinco de Mayo Omaha was a family affair of sorts. As a youth, she volunteered alongside her mother, who was an educator at South High. Now she’s on staff to coordinate parade entries and food vendors as well as the March education conference.
“The reason I became involved is that it connects me to the community as a whole in terms of pride,” Hernandez-Valencia says. “It’s like a big family reunion sometimes.”
The community involvement is what makes Omaha’s events stand out from Cinco de Mayo celebrations across the country, she adds.
“I’ve heard from people elsewhere that some of other celebrations have lost the community connection and become very commercialized,” she says.
Morgan agrees. “The way we make it noncommercial is through community involvement,” she says. “It really does promote the South Omaha area, that it’s vibrant and healthy and with people who are making a difference in their community.”
Funds raised from Cinco de Mayo benefit the community in tangible ways, too. The coordinating organization for Cinco de Mayo Omaha, the South Omaha Business Organization (SOBA), is a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the diversity, heritage, and economic vitality of the community of South Omaha.
“(Cinco de Mayo Omaha) is a very unique gem in the state of Nebraska that many have yet to discover and need to discover,” Hernandez-Valencia says.