Why does San Jose close Roosevelt Park during Cinco de Mayo?
SJPD spokesperson Officer Steve Aponte said Roosevelt Park is fenced off every year for Cinco de Mayo. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Last year was the worst Cinco de Mayo that Corena Medina ever experienced.

“It was a complete wreck,” said Medina, a resident of the Roosevelt Park neighborhood. “Literally, smoke filled the air from all the (tire) burnouts.”

For at least the last 15 years, San Jose has fenced off Roosevelt Park during the week of Cinco de Mayo, a Mexican holiday celebrating the country’s victory against the French in 1862. San Jose Police Department spokesperson Steve Aponte said SJPD did not fence off the park last year, since it was already closed due to pandemic restrictions.

The closure of Roosevelt Park is in response to requests from nearby residents to protect the area from vandalism and public drunkenness, according to Aponte.

But some critics call the park’s fencing off racist. Organizers of the annual May Day march, which started at the downtown park, demanded police reopen it before the gathering. They got their wish.

“The Coalition again asks what it is about Brown and Black bodies that requires the annual fencing off of a park?” said activist Shaunn Cartwright in a statement. “Is St James Park, which is close to several German and Irish bars, fenced off during Oktoberfest or St. Patrick’s Day?”

Councilmember Raul Peralez, whose district includes the park, said he’s long heard from residents about Cinco de Mayo celebrations leading to sideshows, speeding and other crimes.

“(Roosevelt Park) was not fenced up last year, and that’s what’s caused a lot of commotion within the community,” Peralez told San José Spotlight. “We had a lot of people congregating at the park, and that turned into sideshows in the middle of the street, people racing down the neighborhood streets, people urinating on lawns in the area there.”

Peralez said racism was not a factor in the city’s decision to close the park, saying that St. Patrick’s Day is simply not as popular of a holiday in San Jose.

“None of it stems from, ‘Hey, this is a Mexican holiday, should we provide more security,’… it all stems from ‘This is what happened in my neighborhood,’” Peralez said. “It’s really about the actions that are occurring that are driving the response.”

Police officers were present to direct traffic away from residential streets during and after the May Day demonstration. The park has since been closed again.

Medina, who’s owned a home in the area for six years, said the rowdiness of Cinco de Mayo celebrations has gotten progressively worse since she’s lived there. This year was the first in which she felt the area remained peaceful during the holiday week, which she attributed to the pandemic.

“This year, because it had toned down so much from last year, there weren’t so many burnouts,” Medina said. “(Residents) were able to enjoy it for what it’s worth.”

Roosevelt Park was temporarily reopened for the May Day march on Saturday. Photo by Sonya Herrera.

Medina said she’s enjoyed celebrating Cinco de Mayo since she was a child, but because she believes San Jose’s celebrations attract so many people from out of town, it’s difficult for it to be organized in a way that leaves residents safe.

“Half of the people coming here are not even from San Jose—they’re coming from Stockton, they’re coming from Modesto, they’re coming from Hollister,” Medina said. “I feel like (closing Roosevelt Park) was easiest way for them to create a sense of safety and contained celebration.”

John Turner, a resident of the Naglee Park neighborhood just east of San Jose State University, has a different perspective. He said parks should remain open for all to enjoy.

“It gives a bad impression to everybody… but I would be for somehow eliminating large congregations in Roosevelt Park with drinking, litter and all of that stuff,” Turner said. “They don’t want Roosevelt Park to get out of control.”

Medina, who lives a few blocks off of Santa Clara Street near the park, said things got so bad last year that she was unable to enter her home: transit buses blocked the road because they had to drive around ongoing sideshows.

Peralez said that while he enjoyed celebrating Cinco de Mayo growing up—including cruising down Santa Clara Street in his 1965 Chevy Impala—the safety and quality of life for residents is the city’s top priority. Fencing off Roosevelt Park may be necessary to protect residents from overly enthusiastic celebrants.

“The parks are meant to be open, meant to be public gathering spaces… by default, that would be my interest,” Peralez said. “But at some point, when the congregation becomes unruly and unmanageable… it spills over from the park and then goes into the immediate neighborhoods.”

Medina said Roosevelt Park, the gateway to the city’s downtown, could reopen for Cinco de Mayo if congregants were more organized. For example, she suggested that creating a registry of participants and cars ahead of time could help reduce congestion in the area and hold visitors accountable.

“We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Medina said. “I feel like the park would be an amazing spot if it were organized enough.”

Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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