Exploring Detroit’s Mexicantown on Cinco de Mayo can’t help but remind the outsider that this neighborhood is as rich in public art as any in the metro area.
Outdoor artwork includes the celebrated murals along West Vernor and Springwells, Lisa Luevanos’ viaduct mosaics, and ordinary wrought-iron gates of unusual delicacy and detail throughout the district.
But it’s the murals, naturally, which hold pride of place. And for that — and the fact that Detroit is now becoming known as a city of murals — we can probably thank Diego Rivera.
“Murals are universal,” said local muralist and Detroit Institute of Arts teacher Vito Valdez. “Think about the frescoes in Italy,” he said. “Talk about murals!”
Cinco de Mayo, meaning Fifth of May in Spanish, is recognized in the U.S. and parts of Mexico to celebrate the Battle of Puebla, when the Mexican Army defeated the French on May 5, 1862.
This year’s Cinco de Mayo celebrations will include a clever contest encouraging visitors to check out the murals and other notable artwork, like Mary Herbeck’s whimsical, inlaid-ceramic chairs on Vernor near Casper.
Through Sunday, visitors who take a selfie in front of one of 16 neighborhood artworks listed on the West Vernor & Springwells Business Improvement District website and post to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #CincoSWDet, will be entered to win one of 20 gift certificates good at area businesses and restaurants.
Winners will be announced Tuesday.
“Our businesses are ready to roll out the red carpet, not only to welcome our neighbors,” said West Vernor & Springwells BID board chair Jason Ghannam, “but also encourage new visitors to explore the area.”
Weekend activities sure to do just that include a Taco Tour and Bar Crawl Friday, a “Shopping Saturday” throughout the neighborhood, and Sunday’s 54th Annual Cinco de Mayo Parade starting at noon at Patton Park.
Leading the parade will be the Detroit Police Equestrian Squad and the Western International High School ROTC.
That will be followed by the Cinco de Mayo Fiesta and Mercado at Clark Park, with special performances by Ballet Folklórico, the Center of Music & Performing Arts Southwest (COMPÁS) and Mariachi Femenil.
Family-friendly activities will abound, including a bouncy house-and-slide, petting zoo, clowns and face-painting.
Additionally, the Mexicantown Latino Cultural Center at 2835 Bagley in Detroit will host the opening of a “Peace Exhibition” of paintings and sculpture Saturday from noon-6 p.m. that Valdez has helped organize. The show will be up through the end of the month.
There’s even a “Savor Southwest Detroit” app kicking off Cinco de Mayo weekend that’s available for Android devices and on the Google Play store. (Coming soon to Apple products.)
The origins of Mexico’s love affair with the mural, of course, date back to “Los Tres Grandes” — the three great muralists in the early 20th century: Rivera, David Alfaro Siquieros and José Clemente Orozco. Together, they helped define Mexican identity and patriotism with a series of stirring, often political, murals.
And why did murals take off in Mexico, when they didn’t — say — in Norway?
“Because of ‘Los Tres Grandes,’ ” said Valdez with a grin. “They were busy! But they were also communists, political rabble-rousers and educators.”
He notes that at the same time Rivera and company were remaking the walls of Mexico City, in the U.S. the Works Progress Administration artists’ program underwrote an explosion of murals in American post offices, city halls and the like.
If you’d like a peek at actual muralists at work, Valdez and Brooklyn artist Katie Yamasaki — granddaughter of Detroit architect Minoru Yamasaki — will be working on the restoration of a mural at 4802 W. Vernor, on the back wall of Liberty Pharmacy.
The mural was started years ago as a project to bring members of rival teenage gangs together, but it was never finished.
Valdez won a Knight Arts Challenge grant to restore and complete the wall, which will be titled “Shield of Peace and Non-Violence,” in homage to those killed in gang violence over the decades.
Soon the circular red shield with the crouching Aztec warrior, which was the only part the original artists completed, will be framed by two heroic Mexican goddesses, and a pair of magic creatures guarding the composition and the street.
Valdez has tried to track down the original artists, who’d all be grown by now, but hasn’t had any luck.
He smiles. Once word gets out that he and Yamasaki are painting, he said, “The guys who started it are going to come out of the woodwork.”
Select Cinco de Mayo Activities this weekend
6 p.m.-midnight Friday: Taco Tour & Bar Crawl, a self-guided tour through seven area restaurants (see swdetroitbid.com)
All day Saturday: “Shopping Saturday” throughout Mexicantown, with special deals and sidewalk sales
Noon Sunday: Cinco de Mayo Parade kicks off at Patton Park (West Vernor and Woodmere); ends at Clark Park
2-6 p.m. Sunday: Cinco de Mayo Fiesta and Mercado at Clark Park with live entertainment and kids’ activities
For a list of activities, visit swdetroitbid.com