By John J. Grabowski, Ph.D., Historian/Senior Vice President for Research and Publications, Western Reserve Historical Society
Today Cinco de Mayo is an occasion to celebrate the cultures and history of Mexico. It is not, as some people think, Mexican Independence Day (which falls on September 16), but rather a commemoration of the Battle of Pueblo where a small force of Mexicans fought off a French invading army. The Mexicans, many of indigenous or mixed ancestry lost 200 dead and the French, who retreated, lost approximately 500. That battle sparked Mexican resistance to the French who finally withdrew from Mexico in 1867.
Today, that victory is celebrated in Mexico and wherever Mexicans live and is a time of great cultural pride. It was likely remembered by the first groups of Mexicans who came to Cleveland during the 1910s, again a time of turmoil in Mexico, sparked by a long draw-out revolution. When they arrived in Cleveland and other parts of northeastern Ohio they joined a wide variety of immigrants who worked in the area’s mills and factories and, like those other newcomers, sought to preserve their culture in a new land. One of the ways they did so was to establish a club. Club Azteca was founded in 1932 with Felix Delgado as its first president. It quickly began to coordinate the community’s celebration of both Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day. By 1951, with a growing membership and increased donations, Club Azteca bought a building at 5602 Lorain Avenue and renovated the structure and decorated it with motifs reflecting Mexican culture. For many years the building housed a variety of events. It was a landmark on Lorain Avenue, but then another battle ensued.
Unused for several years the building became a prime target for developers on the near west side seeking to build new upscale residences. That was the start of what one might consider another “battle”. A coalition of Mexican and LatinX organizations pushed back on the project and while the structure itself could not be saved a compromise of sorts was achieved. It was engineered by the Azteca Coalition which included Club Azteca, Inc., Comité Mexicano de Cleveland, Young Latino Network and the Mexican American Historical Society, with support from the Cleveland Foundation. This plan will see to the preservation of various artifacts and artwork from the building along with other materials that relate to the Mexican and LatinX communities. In some ways this echoes the victory at the Battle of Pueblo – it was one battle that would eventually lead to a larger victory five years later. So, perhaps five years from now we will be able to see the fuller preservation and recognition of the roles that Mexicans and the LatinX community have played in building our nation and city.