In honor of its rich Mexican heritage, Nebraska's South Omaha Latino community has been hosting Mexican festivals in Omaha for decades, dating back to 1920. Throughout history the festivities have included live music, food, dancers and parade— a tradition of cultural pride.
1921: Limits on the number of immigrants allowed in the United States are imposed for the first time in the country’s history. In Omaha, Leopoldo Villasenor assisted in the coordination of the city’s Mexican festival at the Union Hall.
1925: The “Border Patrol” is created in Congress.
The United States government begins to deport Mexicans. Between 300,000 and 500,000 Mexican Americans were forced out of the United States in the 1930s. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Mexican and Mexican American families especially hard. Many rejoiced in the company of others Latinos at fiestas that took place along 24th and P Streets in the historic South 24th Street. Some of the first documented photos were provided by the Barrientos Family archives.
As WWII sets in, many Latinos enlist in the U.S. military – as a proportion, the largest ethnic group serving in the war.
The Fair Employment Practices Act is passed, eliminating discrimination in employment.
In this decade, the United States experiences an influx of Mexican settlers and a new wave of musicians that began to play at house parties and cultural events.
1948: Dr. Hector Garcia, a witness to racial injustice, begins holding meetings for Mexican Americans to voice their concerns, and in March they establish a new Mexican American movement: The American GI Forum.
The Barrientos brothers and Buso family hit the Omaha music scene playing at dances, gatherings and events.
1951: The Bracero Program is formalized as the Mexican Farmer Labor Supply Program and the Mexican Labor Agreement bring an annual average of 350,000 Mexican workers into the United States until its end in 1964.
1954: In the case Hernandez v. The State of Texas, the Supreme Court recognizes that Latinos are suffering inequality and profound discrimination, paving the way for Mexican Americans to use legal means to fight for their equality. This is the first Supreme Court case briefed and argued by Mexican American attorneys.
In Omaha, the Mexican American community festival organizers began renting a stage for its annual festivals which were under the guidance of the Chicano Awareness Center (CAC) organization. The festivals took place along South 24th and O Streets. Some of the festivities were hosted inside the basement of the center.
CAC dancers and children’s performances were given at the festival featuring elaborate handmade costumes. Local music talent also performed at the festivals. Theater acts were also shared by Abelardo Hernandez and fellow ‘Chicanos’.
The Chicano Awareness Center continued to foster Mexican festivals under its organization and began incorporating a street parade as part of the celebrations. The Mexican American community was still fairly small but continued to share its cultural pride at the festivals.
Omaha’s Mexican Festivals were still coordinated within the Chicano Awareness Center’s organization, but the city as well as the Mexican Festivals experienced a population and attendance boom. Nebraska was ranked No.10 in the country for being one of the fastest growing states to experience an increase in the Latino population. Virgil Armendariz was one of the key organizers for the city’s Mexican Festivals. Meetings would take place in the basement of the CAC as the community at large started to take notice of the growing cultural event in South Omaha.
The next generation of young Latino leaders continued the tradition of hosting and planning Mexican Festivals under the leadership of John Barrientos and the South Omaha Business Association. With the redevelopment of South Omaha, the parade and other festivities were held along South 24th Street and La Plaza. Mexican Festivals now featured a carnival, food and community vendors, live performances, and national music acts such as Los Horóscopos de Durango and Diana Reyes. The festival served as a hub to fundraising money for scholarships through the American GI Forum with Memo Vasquez and John Miranda. Other funds were raised by selling food at the festival for local churches such as St. Joe’s and many others.
2003: Hispanics are pronounced the nation’s largest minority group – surpassing African Americans.
Under the leadership of Marcos Mora, Cinco de Mayo Omaha became its own official 501c3 non-profit entity and ranked one of the largest Cinco de Mayo festivals in the country, according to TripAdvisor. The festival reached new heights to an attendance record of 125k visitors from around the Midwest and the 2nd largest event in Omaha. The festivals now feature live music/entertainment, carnival rides, food, exhibitors, health fair, Miss coronation, games, concerts and children’s section. The parade is the largest in the Midwest. Scholarship are given out in partnership the Barrientos Scholarship Foundation. Internships were developed and the next generation of young leaders began to be involved in the festival such as Itzel Lopez, Paula Zamora, Anadelia Lamas, the Flores family and many others.
2020 marked the 100 year anniversary of the first Mexican festival and is recognized as the longest ethnic running festival in the history of Omaha. Cinco de Mayo Omaha now is Omaha's #1 largest local event with 250,000 attendees from six surrounding states that generates 7.5 million dollars back into the local economy