Fifteen Latino Ashland High School students held a Cinco de Mayo celebration Wednesday to expose their fellow students to Mexican culture in the hopes of fostering more understanding about immigrant communities and preventing what happened in Arizona from happening in Oregon, they said.

For Ashland High School student Mariana Mezquite-Paso, this Cinco de Mayo meant more than years past.

This year the holiday was about celebrating her Mexican heritage while taking a stand with Latinos across the nation who are speaking out against Arizona's anti-illegal immigration law they say will lead to racial profiling.

The 16-year-old took the opportunity Wednesday to expose her fellow students to Mexican culture in the hopes of fostering more understanding about immigrant communities and preventing what happened in Arizona from happening in Oregon, she said.

"I wanted to show a little bit about my Mexican tradition because we rarely do anything here and I want to keep my culture going and show people that it's a good culture and a positive culture," she said. "Hopefully what happened in Arizona won't affect here."

About 15 Latino students organized the high school's first Cinco de Mayo lunchtime celebration in the campus' quad, featuring Ballet Folklorico, a dancing competition, donkey rides and a piñata. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican army's victory over French forces on May 5, 1862.

Ashland High School Principal Jeff Schlecht said he was glad to hear the students were informed about Arizona's immigration law, signed into effect April 23.

The toughest law on illegal immigration in the nation, it aims to identify, prosecute and deport illegal immigrants and gives police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.

"I'm so proud that our kids have that level of awareness," Schlecht said. "I'm just proud that they're thinking about this relevant and complex issue. A lot of them are going to be voting soon and that's what we want from our citizens — we want them to be informed."

Schlecht and other staff members joined several hundred students in the celebration, participating in the dance competition and donkey rides.

"We just want to give a little taste of Mexico for people who haven't been there," said Juan Mezquite, a Rogue Community College student and Ashland High School graduate who helped out with the celebration.

The annual Mexican holiday seemed like an opportune time to take a stand for Latinos in Arizona, said Ashland High School senior Pablo Leal, 19.

"Illegal immigration probably shouldn't be happening," he said, "but what's happening in Arizona is discrimination — they can just pull people over because of how they look."

Sandra Brand, who teaches English as a second language and helped organize the event, said the celebration gave the Latino students a chance to practice leadership.

"What I think is important here is that the students are taking charge," she said. "It was their idea. This gives them a chance to shine in the student body and get other students involved in their culture.

"We're hoping that this will continue as a tradition."

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.