Fearing raid on immigrants, organizers cancel Cinco de Mayo festival

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A participant dresses the part during Carnaval de Puebla on the 1500 block of Wharton Street in Philadelphia on April 25, 2010. Organizers have canceled this year's event amid concerns of recent ICE crackdowns.

With hundreds of revelers sporting ornate headdresses, bearded masks, handstitched capes and replica muskets, El Carnaval de Puebla en Filadelphia has been a Mexican folk tradition and rite of spring in South Philadelphia since 2006.

This year, however, organizers have canceled the festival, citing fears that a mass gathering of Mexicans could become a target for immigration enforcement actions.

“People are scared," Edgar Ramirez, an organizing committee leader, said Monday. "The atmosphere is not good."

He pointed to recent immigration raids around the country, including a roundup of 200 people in Pennsylvania this month, and President Trump’s repeated calls for tougher tactics against undocumented immigrants.

The Cinco de Mayo-themed event, held annually on a playground at Fifth Street and Washington Avenue on the last Sunday in April, features vendors, music, and a jubilant re-enactment of the 1862 battle in which Mexico’s forces defeated the French.

In addition to the costumed reenactors, the carnival draws thousands of people from throughout Pennsylvania, South Jersey, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and New York. Organizers felt that people in transit and away from their homes would be more vulnerable, Ramirez said, “and we don’t want to risk anyone.”

Immigration lawyer David Kaplan, whose caseload includes undocumented Mexicans facing deportation, said the organizers' concerns seem justified, even if a raid on the carnival itself would be unlikely.

"I don't think it's beyond [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] to put themselves in the right locations where people would stop to eat before going to the carnival," he said.

For its part, ICE has said it conducts targeted enforcement operations, not dragnet-style sweeps.

Still, said Ramirez, for both documented and undocumented immigrants, this year's atmosphere feels less than celebratory.

Alicia Kerber-Palma, Mexico's consul general in Philadelphia, said she had been working with the carnival's organizers to bring in musicians from Mexico and the mayor of Puebla, the city where most Philadelphians of Mexican descent were born. 

"Last Wednesday they told us they are canceling," said Kerber-Palma. Organizers "have heard all the [negative] things said about the Mexican community" and news stories about the border wall, the hiring of more immigration agents and stepped-up removals, she said, "so it is logical that they are concerned."

Conceived and run by the private Organizacion San Mateo Carnavalero, the event is among the most well-known of the city's ethnic street fairs.      

Mayor Kenney said in an NBC10 interview that he was “devastated to hear that ICE has had such a chilling effect that Philadelphians no longer feel comfortable engaging in this public celebration.”

Ramirez said the organizing committee’s decision was unanimous but not a death knell for the festival, which he hoped would return “even stronger” in 2018.

Mexicans in Philadelphia, though, may have a Cinco de Mayo-themed festival to attend this year. Another group of carnavaleros, Original Carnaval de Huejotzingo, says it has a permit to march from Fifth and Shunk Streets to Sacks Playground at Washington Avenue starting at 9 a.m. April 23.

"Is there a sense of fear in the community at this moment? Yes, but not unilaterally," said Erika Almiron, director of the immigrant support group Juntos. "People are trying to figure out how to go on with their lives ... to keep cultural events like these living and breathing, because they have to."