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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Flu cancels Mexico's Cinco de Mayo celebrations

By ISTRA PACHECO / May 06, 2009

PUEBLA, Mexico (AP) — Swine flu fears closed Mexico's biggest Cinco de Mayo celebration in this colonial city on Tuesday, while Mexicans in the U.S. planned to party despite the growing epidemic north of the border.

For the first time in decades, the re-enactment of the Battle of Puebla, Mexico's May 5, 1862 victory over French forces, was called off to avoid contagion-prone crowds. It was replaced by a somber ceremony featuring President Felipe Calderon, other officials and a small number of soldiers. Surrounding streets were empty.

With 26 Mexicans dead and 840 sickened by swine flu, Calderon said Mexico faces a different, more silent enemy than the one it faced 147 years ago. France had invaded to install the Emperor Maximilian, who ruled the country until Mexican forces executed him in 1867.

"Back then, Mexicans truly fought like giants against an invader who aimed to take over our country and tarnish our flag," Calderon declared. "Today, almost a century and a half later, Mexico faces a new threat of a very different kind ... the appearance and spread of an epidemic that puts at risk the lives and health of Mexican families."

Calderon vowed that Mexico would again emerge victorious.

"We have faced foreign invasions, civil wars, natural disasters and economic and political crises," Calderon said. "None of these threats has been able to break the will of Mexicans."

Mexico has been stung by travel and trade barriers imposed by other nations during the flu outbreak, and Calderon suggested that Mexico was being punished for openly combating the epidemic.

"Mexican doctors and nurses are on the front lines in the field of battle against this new blow to humanity," Calderon said. "Here we have been defending all of humanity against this virus."

In addition to the 26 in Mexico, the only other confirmed swine flu deaths so far are two reported in Texas.Puebla's traditional parade usually features actors dressed in the snappy blue-and-red uniforms of the invading French force facing off with Mexican troops alongside peasant defenders clad in sandals, serapes and straw hats. It boasts baton-twirlers, marching bands and floats.

This year a black-clad military band and an honor guard took part in a short ceremony at a monument to Mexican battle heroes.Newspaper El Sol de Puebla reported that the celebration has never before been canceled since it began in its current form in 1937.In the United States, where Cinco de Mayo has become a pseudo-holiday adopted by the general population, the epidemic spawned some concern.

Denver's annual Cinco de Mayo Festival, which typically draws 400,000, will be held as planned this weekend, though there will be more hand sanitation stations at the urging of city health officials. Los Angeles won't skip its weekend celebration on historic Olvera Street. But in Chicago, the Mexican Civic Society of Illinois canceled its annual festivities because of flu concerns.

On Monday, President Barack Obama celebrated Cinco de Mayo a day early at the White House with the Mexican ambassador — and fumbled the name of the holiday while greeting guests.

"Welcome to Cinco de Cuatro — Cinco de Mayo at the White House," said Obama, in what appeared to be an attempt to note he was celebrating on May 4 instead of May 5.

"Cinco de cuatro" means "five of four" in Spanish.


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