SAN JOSE -- As a little girl, Elba Moran grew up in Pinole, a member of a Mexican-American family that had little interest in celebrating Mexico's victory over the French army on May 5, 1862.
So on Sunday, a day before Cinco de Mayo, Moran happily made the drive from Vallejo with her 2-year-old son, Damien Cruz, to soak up as much Mexican culture as she could, hoping the sounds and sights of dancers, bands and food at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds will also seep into Damien's young soul.
"It's hard when you grow up not surrounded by your culture," said Moran, 30, looking down at her boy. "I would definitely like for him to be part of it."
Even on May 4, it was impossible not to feel the pride of Cinco de Mayo pulsing throughout the fairgrounds, where people literally draped themselves in the Mexican flag and cruised up and down Tully Road outside the fairgrounds' entrance with green, white and red-striped Mexican flags flying from trucks and cars and motorcycles.
The typical carnival food had a decidedly Mexican flare on Sunday. And emcees, trying to attract crowds to various cultural performances, used blaring loud speakers to compete against one another in Spanish.
Victory over French
For Rebeca Tellez of Napa, it was more important to be surrounded by like-minded people who had gathered, ostensibly, to commemorate the Battle of Puebla, which represented an unlikely triumph of a poorly armed Mexican militia over the invading French army.
While often mistaken as Mexico's day of independence, Cinco de Mayo honors the victory of an estimated 4,500 Mexican fighters led by Gen. Ignacio Zaragoza Seguin over 6,000 professional French soldiers.
The battle in the state of Puebla lasted four hours.
While the French won the bigger war and went on to rule Mexico for three years, Cinco de Mayo remains a source of cultural pride for the Mexicans' ability to push back outsiders and retain their national identity.
"It is the biggest thing," Tellez said. "It is a celebration of our country."
Tellez made the trek from Napa to San Jose on Sunday with her niece, Jessica Tellez, 24, and Jessica's distant cousin, Giovani Diaz, a cattle rancher from Jalisco, who was visiting.
As Diaz got up grinning after being thrown from a mechanical bull that he paid $5 to ride, Jessica Tellez said the fairgrounds' Cinco de Mayo festivities made her feel closer to her family in Mexico.
"Since my family's from Jalisco, I love the culture and everything about it," Tellez said. "It's very important to me."
Across the fairgrounds, eight members of the much larger Calpulli Tonalehqueh Aztec dance group honored their ancestors who predated Mexico's victory in the Battle of Puebla.
Chris Torres, 23, of Cupertino, also goes by the Aztec name Coyolmitl and said Sunday's event reminds Mexican-Americans in California of their indigenous heritage.
"It's important to know that we are not immigrants," Torres said. "The word 'immigrants' means we come from the outside, from somewhere else. We are migrants, which means someone who moves around in our own area."
The youngest member of Calpulli Tonalehqueh to perform Sunday, David Ramirez, 12, had perhaps the most worldly view of what it means to represent both the Mexican and indigenous Nauhatl cultures in 2014.
"We're so caught up in technology today," Ramirez said, as his sister wore a pair of ear buds while playing with her smart phone. "It's important to show people the old ways. It makes me feel good and it makes me feel proud."
Alexis Rosas, 14, of San Jose, got involved with the dancers after watching them perform as a bystander.
Joining the group has since pulled Rosas and her entire family more deeply into their Mexican heritage, said Rosas' mom, Antonia.
As Rosas prepared to go on stage, Antonia Rosas could not hide what it means to see her daughter connect modern-day Mexican-Americans with their cultural roots.
"This is one proud mom here," Rosas said.
Later Sunday evening, San Jose police were out in force preparing for the Cinco de Mayo crowds that flow into and through downtown and over in East San Jose.As of 8:30 p.m. there was only one arrest and, according to police spokeswoman Heather Randol, police dispersed one gathering at 19th and Santa Clara streets for unlawful assembly.
Howard Mintz contributed to this report. Contact Dan Nakaso at 408-271-3648. Follow him at Twitter.com/dannakaso.