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Reclaiming Cinco de Mayo with a Poblano-Style Dinner in Oakland

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an array of Mexican foods are arranged on a colorful table top
For at El Otro Lado's Cinco de Mayo event, the Portland-based panaderia La Casa de Mamá will serve a vegan dinner of Poblano-style dishes. (Courtesy of Marisa Sanchez-Dunning/La Casa de Mamá)

When it comes to being Mexican American, or Chicanx, in California, there is a double consciousness that is fractured by our proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s a beautiful contradiction: to exist physically in one location, but to dream spiritually and psychologically of another home. Within our community, it’s often the role of artists and food makers to merge those worlds, inviting others to grapple with — and enjoy — the flavors and edges of the borderland we occupy.

Such is the mission for Marisa Sanchez-Dunning, a 29-year-old Chicana from Berkeley who is launching El Otro Lado, or “the other side” — a Cinco de Mayo dinner that will honor the food and history of the central Mexican city of Puebla. Puebla is where the battle of Cinco de Mayo took place against the French in 1862 and where the holiday is mostly celebrated in Mexico. (Most regions in Mexico don’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo since it represents a battle that holds minor significance in the country’s larger history.)

an outdoor patio in Oakland with Mexican cacti and warm colors
If Only Creative aspires to build spaces like “El Otro Lado” for minority-owned businesses. (Courtesy of Marisa Sanchez-Dunning)

In Puebla, it’s still a day of commemoration and celebration. Unlike the Americanized version of the event — which overuses stereotypical symbols of Mexicanidad like Corona beers, Tostitos salsa dip and sombreros — Sanchez-Dunning plans to highlight the day and her heritage with more dimension and accuracy. 

To help make that happen, an array of diverse food makers from both countries will fly into Oakland for the event, each representing various facets of Mexican foods and cultures, from chocolates and pasteles to mezcal and moles.

“How can we do something bigger and better? What’s a milestone in the year I can take and reimagine? Within our community it was Cinco de Mayo,” says Sanchez-Dunning, who will host the event in partnership with her creative studio, If Only Creative. “I wanted to figure out what that would look like and make sense for a holiday that feels so Americanized. It just feels blindly celebrated without knowing where it stems from. How can we make this holiday better?”

a platter of colorful, Mexican-style ice creams
De La Creamery will be supplying their small-batch Mexican helados. (Andrea Arevalo)

Despite the biases of our Californian palates, there won’t be any tacos or burritos — since those dishes aren’t typically associated with Puebla. That would be like serving New York-style pizza in New Orleans for Mardi Gras.

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Instead, Portland’s La Casa de Mamá — an all-vegan Mexican American bakery — will handle the main dishes. The menu will include vegan versions of classic Poblano favorites like chiles en nogada — a large Poblano pepper traditionally stuffed with ground meat and spices, then topped with sour cream and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds to form the tri-color of the Mexican flag. Pozole verde, tamalitos, cemitas, flautas and mole Poblano will round out the five-course meal.

Other highlights will include drinking chocolates, agua fresca and Mexican coffee (from Austin’s Hijita, Bawi Agua Fresca and Mercado Sin Nombre, respectively), specially-made Paquera mezcal imported directly from Mexico by the mezcalero himself and Mexican helados from the Bay Area’s own De La Creamery. San Francisco’s Norte 54 will serve Mexican cakes, and take-home “goodie bags” will include original art from L.A.’s Latina-owned brand, Raggedy Tiff.

a plate of Mexican pastries are served on a wooden table top
Norte 54’s pasteles will cap off the five-course dinner. (Alan Chazaro)

Sanchez-Dunning hopes to turn El Otro Lado into a recurring series with rotating guests.

“[If Only Creative] was born out of creative frustration, frustration in general. I felt like I was working for people who were not aligned with me — really wealthy white men. It wasn’t the vibe,” Sanchez-Dunning says about starting her creative agency in 2021 and taking the leap to host events like El Otro Lado. “This was [created from] my day-to-day rebellious daydreams.” 

El Otro Lado is happening on Fri., May 5 from 6 to 9:30 p.m at 4200 Piedmont Ave., Oakland. The full dinner menu with non-alcoholic beverages costs $111.11 per guest. Unlimited mezcal cocktails are also available for an optional $30. Tickets are available online.

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