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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Thanks to the People's Joy Parade, Cherokee Street's Cinco de Mayo Will Never Be Normal

Posted By on Wed, Apr 29, 2015 at 7:00 AM

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  • Micah Usher

The Truth About Cinco de Mayo

"Cinco" is not a big holiday among Mexicans. True, it officially commemorates the nation's 1862 victory over France, but Mexico's major patriotic celebration falls on September 16, the anniversary of its independence from Spain. Cinco revelry in the United States is largely a triumph of marketing, according to Minerva Lopez, Cherokee resident and organizer of the street's Latino Business Owners Association. "We put it together for the gringos," she says, "but the Mexicans know it's going to happen, and it's outdoors, and it's fun, so they come."

Lopez confirms the widely observed irony that, during Cinco, those two groups tend to crisscross the expected alcohol preference: Hispanic revelers often favor Bud Light, while gringos sip Corona. But drink they do, all of them, which provokes the question: Who profits from Cinco?

The vendors of beer, food and art will make money in varying degrees, but the festival operators have historically broken even, says Anne McCullough of the Cherokee Street Development League, the new 501(c)3 that now runs the event. She says that any surplus cash from the collection of permit fees or from sponsorships will go right back into the nonprofit, whose official mission is to create an "inviting, diverse and sustainable environment while promoting arts, culture and creative innovation."

Cinco de Mayo now boasts several corporate sponsors, including Bud Light, Busch and U.S. Bank. Thanks to their money, the kids' inflatable playgrounds will be free of charge this year, as will the concerts by Latino, rock and hip-hop musicians on three different stages.

"We couldn't do half of what we do without U.S. Bank and Anheuser-Busch," says McCullough.

The People's Joy Parade has a different ethos. Says Sarah Paulsen: "We've intentionally tried to keep it locally supported so that it really is unencumbered."

  • Micah Usher

Funding Joy

Parades feed on humans, time and materials. In short, they cost money. At first, organizers relied on Kickstarter campaigns to raise funds. Then, in 2013, coordinator Jenny Callen brainstormed with Lopez and came up with a novel way to bring in dollars: the JoyRita competition. It's a "margarita-off": Donors pay $15 for a bracelet that allows them to first sample, and then vote on, the best versions of the Mexican cocktail presented by various Cherokee establishments.

The most recent JoyRita was held April 11, and nine businesses joined the fray. (One entry: a blackberry-habanero margarita.) Lopez notes the tequila pours for the six-ounce concoctions were sometimes generous.

"We get them drunk," she says.

The event pulled in more than $1,300 for the People's Joy Parade.

That cash will supplement a grant of $2,000 that Callen was able to secure for 2015 and 2016 from the Regional Arts Commision (RAC), which in turn draws its funds from the city's hotel-motel room tax. The RAC award will help pay for supplies and permits, while also compensating the parade organizers, none of whom are getting rich in the process.

"At the end of the day, I think I pay myself $2 an hour," Callen estimates.

Digger Romano with his elaborate gigante. - MICAH USHER
  • Micah Usher
  • Digger Romano with his elaborate gigante.

Spotted en Route

The largest participants in the People's Joy Parade are not people. They're gigantes, or giant puppets. Wesley Fordyce and a fellow artist known as Digger have constructed several over the years. The men collect bamboo from Fordyce's property in west county, then split it so it's pliable.They fashion skeletons out of the split bamboo, then finish the puppets with papier-mâché and cloth. Gigantes have taken the forms of creatures such as mermaids, fish, dragons and a corn god, and also objects like boats or globes or hourglasses. One year, Fordyce built a pair of wings so tall, the person carrying it had to duck to avoid the overhead power lines.

Perhaps the loudest and fastest paraders, though, arrive on two wheels. A ragtag cabal of scooter enthusiasts and cyclists zip around doing figure-eights and wheelies, flailing to pin their sombreros to their scalps.

"We've pulled skateboarders down the street and let them do tricks," recalls Stephen Jehle, the recent 20th Ward aldermanic candidate who rides his 1966 Allstate Vespa scooter in the event. "Scooters have died or been dropped in the middle of the parade. We've had drunk people from the sidelines coming up and punching people on scooters. We've had dogs on scooters."

Other modes of transport in People's Joy: stilts, strollers, mopeds, an old firetruck. But not every parade participant is flamboyant. One man simply carried a big wooden cross through the streets.

"He didn't evangelize or anything," says Paulsen. "That's just what he wanted to do."

Galen Gondolfi of Fort Gondo, by way of contrast, defines flamboyancy. The first year he donned a loincloth of flowers and pushed a rickshaw. In subsequent years, he sat atop floats and assaulted drum kits so hard that he dropped into a manic trance, then took a nap at the finish line.

One year, Gondolfi outfitted a float with scaffolding and Christmas lawn ornaments. Mid-parade, he climbed up the scaffolding, then fell. Witnesses laughed, assuming his injuries were a prank.

They weren't.

"I was bloody," he says. "I felt so alive. Well, I also thought it could be the end of my life. But it felt so good."

Gondolfi birthed another parade tradition that he has since bequeathed to musician Rob "The Pancake Master" Severson: the Cinco de Volvos. The goal is to amass as many Volvo 240s as possible into one fleet. In 2014 no fewer than ten converged for the occasion, including Severson's Volvo 240, which he adorned with a giant pair of glittery gold glasses. The Pancake Master sat on the roof in a sombrero and played "Spanish Eyes" on the accordion as his friend took the wheel.

(Severson later parked his car blocks away with the glasses still on the windshield. A police officer left him a parking ticket, but when Severson opened the envelope, he discovered that an appreciative stranger had stuffed cash in it to cover his fine. "Some Cherokee do-gooder saved me a much needed $10!" he says.)

Regulars concur that some of the most bewildering floats have been mounted by artist Mike Stasny. One year, Stasny and some colleagues played keyboards while wearing hulking, hideous monster masks.

"Those were truly frightening," remembers Fordyce.

The second year, Stasny and his fellow musicians in the band MSIF sported formal attire. Then they filled transparent nylon onesies with balloons. Once inflated, they attached those balloon-bodies to their heads, onesies bobbing in the breeze while the musicians gyrated and jammed on a tractor and trailer.

"People were like, 'What is this?'" recalls Sarah Paulsen.

Stasny, who relocated to Georgia, was floored by how "exquisitely fun" the parade turned out to be: "There's people constantly cheering, then right before it gets old for them, you move onto the next group of people. So it's like a standing ovation for you the entire time. It's so beautiful and overwhelming, it's hard to grasp how fun it is until you're in it."

Shelly Everetts agrees. She's been a resident of south St. Louis for almost two decades. Her house sits down the block from CAMP, which holds singing and costume workshops for local kids during the month before the parade. On a recent Sunday, Everetts brought her nine-year-old daughter K.K. and six-year-old son Jaquan to the workshops.

Everetts herself helped lead the parade last year.

"I have a great time! Ooh!" she says. "I want to be in the front again!" Asked what her costume would be this year, she replies, "I'm wearing myself!"

Celia Shacklett, the guitar-wielding maestro of the Footbeat Choir, says her most vivid parade memory involved Everetts' daughter.

"Sometimes it feels like you're out there exposed, and you don't know exactly what you're doing," Shacklett says. "I remember in 2013, this little girl, K.K., she came up beside me and put her hand on the small of my back and walked next to me. She can't possibly know what it felt like to have this little hand on my back supporting me. I'll never forget that."

Shacklett says that Footbeat Choir has an unofficial anthem: "Cielito Lindo."

"It's our theme song," she explains. "We wanted to make that nod to Mexican culture. Everybody can sing it together. It's perfect for us."

"Cielito Lindo"

The Original and Translated Chorus

Ayy ay ay ay, Canta, y no llores! Porque cantando se alegran, Cielito lindo, los corazones!

Ayy ay ay ay, Sing, don't cry! Because singing, pretty little darling, Makes people's hearts happy!

  • Micah Usher

People's Joy Parade Specs

Starting Point: The parking lot of El Leñador at Michigan Avenue and Cherokee Street

Lineup Time: Noonish (but come earlier if you want your face painted, or glittered or befeathered)

Departure Time: 1:11 p.m.

Route: The parade leaves the lot, travels east on Cherokee, turns north to Utah Street, goes east again for a few blocks, then back down to Cherokee with the finish at Texas Avenue

Approximate Distance: 0.7 miles

Recent Participation: 300 to 500 souls (and growing)

Cost: Free! (Though donations are accepted)

Giant Scary Puppets Welcome? Yes

Editor's note: A previous version of this story was corrected to better reflect Rob Severson's nickname and his car's choice of eyewear. He is "The Pancake Master," not the "Pancake Man," and his Volvo wore gold glasses, not brown ones.

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