PUEBLA, Mexico (Reuters) - The flu virus that has killed at least 26 people in Mexico and triggered fears of a pandemic has spoiled Cinco de Mayo, the biggest and most beloved celebration of the year in the cobblestone city of Puebla.
Every year thousands of students, soldiers, musicians and dancers in colorful folkloric costumes crowd into this colonial city east of the capital for the noisy Cinco de Mayo parade to commemorate the 1862 Battle of Puebla against French forces.
This year, Puebla's streets were almost empty as residents obeyed a government order to cancel large public gatherings to avoid spreading the new H1N1 flu strain.
"It's kind of sad. Why do we have to suspend an event that is so important for the state of Puebla and for all Mexicans?" said Laura Arias, 20, a supermarket clerk who as a child danced in the Cinco de Mayo parade.
"I feel sorry for all the school kids who spent weeks and months rehearsing for this day," she said.
Cinco de Mayo is celebrated by Mexican immigrants all over the United States with street fairs and carnivals but in Mexico the day is mainly celebrated in Puebla, where residents could not remember it ever being axed before.
It is often mistaken for Mexican Independence Day, which is actually September 16.
The celebration marks a battle in which Mexican soldiers defeated an invading French army against all odds. The powerful French went on to occupy Mexico a year later but Mexico remembers the battle with great pride.
Puebla residents re-enact the battle by dressing up as French and Mexican soldiers. Some carry old gun-powder rifles or machetes and women dress in costumes from the era, representing the women who cooked and cared for the soldiers.
The event draws tourists from Mexico and abroad. Its cancellation adds to the hard times felt by many in this town, already hit hard by the economic downturn. Shops along the leafy Cinco de Mayo Boulevard where the parade takes place were mostly closed and street vendors nowhere to be seen.
"I think it was the right thing to do, to suspend the parade but I do feel bad for people who are losing business because of it," said Patricia Martinez, 39, a psychiatrist.
The new H1N1 flu strain has spread to more than 1,500 people in 22 countries, sparking trade disputes over pork and friction with China over quarantine measures.
President Felipe Calderon said preventive measures, like canceling public event, had helped contain the infection.
Largely absent from view during the first few days of the epidemic, when the death toll was believed to be much higher, Calderon appeared on Tuesday at a Puebla monument to the general who led the battle and compared health workers to the soldiers of the past.
"Today Mexico faces another threat, this time of a very different type," he said. "Mexico has been the battle front and here we have defended all of humanity from the spreading of this virus."
Editing by Bill Trott