Last year, Kennett Square’s Cinco de Mayo celebration was called off, due to rain. This year, the annual outdoor festival faced two inclement threats: bad weather and swirling fears of immigration enforcement.
“This is a non-political group, and a non-political event,” said Kathleen Snyder, co-founder of Casa Guanajuato, the group convening Sunday’s festival. She said cancelling the event this year was not an option.
At first, it looked like the weather would once again dampen the celebration. Rain intermittently threatened and poured on the street fair, each time scattering revelers under awnings and event tents.
But as morning crept into afternoon, the crowd swelled into the hundreds and unfurled down State Street, filling the road. More than one hundred vendors sold their wares, from Mexican flags to ukuleles to quarts of purple hibiscus juice.
“We’re here, and we’re celebrating,” said Snyder.
About 40 miles west of Philadelphia, southern Chester County has a thriving mushroom industry, which has acted as a magnet for immigrant labor for decades. The industry employs some 9,000 workers, according to Chris Alonzo, owner of Pietro mushrooms and chair of Chester County’s Agricultural Development Council.
The local Mexican community supplies much of the labor that harvests the crop, coexisting with Chester County’s moneyed exurbs and horse farms. But some immigrant mushroom workers are in the country illegally, their precarious existence at odds with the prosperous stability the area is known for.
On April 26th, federal immigration officials entered a mushroom house owned by Kaolin Mushrooms in Avondale, and arrested 12 people on immigration charges.
Immigration lawyers representing the workers said were picked up without warrants, unlike previous arrests. ICE officials denied any wrondoing in a statement, calling the arrests “targeted.”
“ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately,” said officials.
As news of the arrests spread, it drove some in the local Latino community underground, said Alisa Jones, director of La Comunidad Hispana, a local social service agency.
“We saw one-third fewer people than we were expecting to see, that afternoon and the following day,” she said. Attendance for legal consultations and doctor’s appointments is still down.
Mushroom growers also said they had some workers leave early, and stay away from work for the rest of the week.
Rain or shine
Fear motivated organizers of el Carnaval de Puebla — the largest Cinco de Mayo event in Philadelphia — to cancel that event in March.
In Kennett Square, organizers soldiered on.
Contradicting the weather, the forecast for the event looked good. Vendor permits sold out. Attendees came from Reading and Conshohocken, from Bellmawr, New Jersey and Newark, Delaware.
Ruben Veranza and his wife traveled from Montgomery County to sell small Mexican flags and patriotic t-shirts.
“Most people don’t come for the rain,” said Veranza, his wares covered by a clear plastic sheet. Some, he admits, may be afraid to travel if they are unauthorized.
Early concerns about low turnout seemed to wane by mid-afternoon, as people packed the area near the main stage. Food vendors began posting signs that they had ran out of some of the more popular taco fillings.
Locals mixed with out-of-towners to take in dancing by troupes from around the region, and a throbbing Mariachi band that had the crowd singing along.
“Should we be honest? We love seeing all the brown people together,” said Beth Sarnecki, who lives in Kennett Square. “You don’t get to see that.”
“It’s interesting because people say, ‘Kennett’s so cool, it’s so diverse.’ Yes — and, everybody lives in their own spot,” echoed Kennett Square resident Jim Grigsby.
At least one person, however, was not that impressed. Marcos Leon is from Guanajuato, a region in Central Mexico, and has lived in Pennsylvania for 33 years.
“The [Kennett Square] mushroom festival in September has been around longer,” said Leon, who works as a harvester in the mushroom industry. “It’s maybe a bigger occasion.”