Mexican Independence Day a swirl of color, music, dance

Dancing, spinning, bowing horses backed by a mariachi band brought hundreds of onlookers to their feet Sunday during Modesto's celebration of Mexican Independence Day.

Guided by their riders, the horses responded to the guitars, horns and violins of the band, tapping their hooves, sliding sideways across the park and moving in unison before the crowd.

Modestan Jesus Pelayo brought his 7-year-old son, Christian, to the traditional Mexican celebration.

"He's still young and doesn't know much about his heritage," said Pelayo, whose father was born in Mexico. Pelayo grew up in San Jose. "I want him to learn about different cultures and learn why we celebrate, even though he doesn't really understand it yet."

The King-Kennedy Memorial Center and the Inter-Agency Committee hosted the annual Mexican Independence Day event at the King-Kennedy Memorial Center and Mellis Park. The celebration brought together, among other entertainments, the traditional horse dancers and their riders, known as charros; Mariachi los Tapatios; free taquitos from Maria's Tacos; and a keynote speech by Superintendent Arturo Flores.

Flores spoke about the history of the event, said organizer Anne Schultze, the city's recreation coordinator. Much like the Fourth of July, Sept. 16 marks the beginning of a war Mexicans fought against Spaniards. The war began in 1810 and lasted until 1821, when Mexico became its own country.

The event drew about 1,000 people, Schultze estimated.

"We gave away 800 drinks pretty fast," she said. The event started at 1 p.m., and by 4 the taquitos, chips and salsa were long gone.

Families with lawn chairs or seated on the grass watched traditional dancers called chinelos turn and jump on a tented dance floor. With feet apart, knees slightly bent, the dancers would take two shuffling steps then jump left or right. The dance, said Maria Isabele Garcia, came from Puerto Morelos, Mexico. It had been used in the 1500s to taunt the conquistadors who stole Indian gold, Garcia said.

The dancers wore elaborate capes covered with images such as sequined eagles, pyramids, lions and swans. Headdresses with tassels, tall, brightly colored feathers and upturned, pointed black beards covered them from head to throat. On their hands were white gloves. Garcia's husband and brother-in-law led the dancers, most of whom were their children, passing down the dance to the next generation.

Ernesto Cuadro of Modesto came with his wife, three children and elderly parents. He moved to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s, he said.

"We came to remember the root, where we're coming from," he said. "To remember who we are."

Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at eraguso@modbee.com or 578-2235.