Hola mi Gente,
Note: As I begin to write this, I’m seeing that there was yet another mass shooting, this one in Florida and apparently targeting our brothers and sisters from the LGBTQ community. My heart goes out those suffering loss and I would like to take this moment to say that I stand with all my brother and sisters.
Today in New York City, the largest outdoor cultural event in the United States, The Puerto Rican Day Parade, will take place on Fifth Avenue. The parade, which sprung from the Puerto Rican community to resist racism and oppression and to celebrate cultural pride, has since become a commercial enterprise dominated by corporate sponsors and spectacle over substance. Still, it’s our day to shine. I remember the first time my father took me to the parade in the 60s and how it was really a family event and an opportunity to learn about our history with our parents…
No doubt if you live in La Gran Manzana, you have been seeing Puerto Rican flags everywhere. And today you will see the Puerto Rican flag everywhere. You might even tire of seeing that flag, or even ridicule the practice. But here’s the rub: As people of Puerto Rican descent, we adore our flag because for many years, any Puerto Rican who owned one, would go to jail for ten years.
Below you’ll find some history on the parade… ¡Que viva Puerto Rico libre!
The Puerto Rican Parade: Now and Then
Last year  a scandal rocked one of the largest outdoor spectacles in the United States: the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. As a result much of the old leadership was excised and a new board took over with the promise of returning the parade to its roots. “Our goal is to make this more of a cultural, educational event,” said Rosa Gutierrez, the parade’s new treasurer and executive board member. “We’re focusing on the culture, making it a family friendly event and focusing on the important history of Puerto Rico.”[i] Indeed, a worthy goal.
But some basic questions come into mind. What roots are we talking about? Are we referring, as it seems, to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade created by Ramón Vélez in 1995 or the New York Puerto Rican Parade of 1958? If Gutierrez is referring to the former, the answer is yes. But the truth is that by then the parade was something different from what it was originally intended. Surely more spectacular and cosmetic, but less genuine and less rooted in the community it was supposed to serve. And that also begs the question of the present organizational structure. Was it the one envisioned by the founders of the parade? And here the answer is no.
As in the case of other stateside Puerto Rican institutions, there is practically little or no historical research on the parade. Official accounts are for the most part self-serving. A case in point is the new National Puerto Rican Day Parade website, where the origins of the parade are dispatched in one line: “The first parade was held in Spanish Harlem, ‘El Barrio’, subsequently the organization found its new home along Fifth Avenue in New York City.” [ii] Not only short, but inaccurate. The first New York Puerto Rican Day Parade did not take place in El Barrio. Its route extended from 62nd to 96th Street along Fifth Avenue. Furthermore, it was not strictly a New York parade as its organizers invited Puerto Rican organizations from neighboring states — New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania — to participate in it.
Los italianos desfilan en marzo, los irlandeses en octubre, otros desfilan en distintas épocas. Es el estilo de Nueva York. Y al desfilar demuestran su organización. Los irlandeses y los italianos recorrieron hace años nuestro mismo camino. Un día sufrieron también injusticias. Hoy dirigen la ciudad. (El Diario de Nueva York, 1956)
Indeed, the history of the parade does not start in 1958. It goes back to the early 1950s, when Puerto Rican activists, such as Gilberto Gerena Valentín and Antonia Denis, tried to organize the community to fight discriminatory practices against Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in the city. Following the example of the Irish and the Italians, they advocated holding a pan-Hispanic parade to display a show of force and unity to the larger society and the powers that be. In 1955, the Federation of Hispanic Societies, which included Puerto Rican associations, adopted the idea and undertook what finally became the Hispanic Parade. Many groups initially opposed it and some of them tried to sabotage it. For example, within the Puerto Rican community so-called integrationists were concerned that such a display of ethnic pride could hinder the assimilation of Puerto Ricans, while others, like José Monserrat, Director of the New York City office of the Migration Division of Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor, insisted that Puerto Ricans were different from other Spanish speaking groups and that an alliance with them could prove to be counterproductive. Others regarded the Federation of Hispanic Societies as a pro-communist, anti-American front.
Other interest groups such as the Catholic Archdiocese worried, among other things, that the proposed parade could negatively impact on its own celebration: the Saint John the Baptist Feast, which according to some was, “the true Puerto Rican Parade.” The unity of purpose shown by the organizers, the majority being leaders of community-based organizations, forced the hand of city officials who grudgingly allowed the parade to march along the prestigious Fifth Avenue route.
In 1957, after the second parade, which was controlled by Puerto Ricans, a complex power struggle between pan-Hispanists and Puerto Rican hegemonists ensued. A faction broke away and established a committee for a Puerto Rican parade. Attempts by different groups, such as the New York City office of the Migration Division, which by that moment had changed its position towards the Hispanic Parade, the Puerto Rican Democratic Party regular leadership, and the principal Spanish-speaking media, to mend the rift between the two camps proved to be unfruitful, and in 1958 two parades were held. For several years there was a bitter struggle between organizers of both parades, until 1962 when, under increasing pressure from the community and in the context of the 10th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the first truly unified Puerto Rican parade took place.
But in spite of the infighting, both parades — the Hispanic and the Puerto Rican Parades — maintained for several years a profoundly democratic structure. All community-based organizations could participate in the parade. For both parades, their executive boards as well as the organizing committees were elected in annual general assemblies of all the participating organizations. There were no paid officials. Political and commercial publicity were banned. Once the events ended, each executive committee was required to convoke a general assembly to present a final report, including a financial disclosure, and to elect the officials for the next year’s parades. The downside of this structure was a continuous power struggle between different factions, and a lack of continuity in the works. In 1974, Ramón Vélez took direct control of the parade and did away with the participatory structure. In 1978, under accusations of mismanagement of funds, the New York State Supreme Court barred Vélez from playing any official role in the parade. The Vélez-controlled board, however, continued directing the event, and in 1980, the Puerto Rican Parade was reincorporated as the New York Puerto Rican Parade. In 1995, the board, once again under the direct control of Vélez, incorporated it as the National Puerto Rican Day Parade as a 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt non-profit organization, a status that allowed for its revenue growth and programmatic expansion. By then, the parade had become one of the biggest ethnic showcases in the United States. Broadcast by the English- language television stations since 1991, it is nationally known for is excessive commercialization and its spectacular extravaganza.
The latest scandal, which brought to the surface a pattern of misappropriation of funds by the parade’s marketing agent and of lax oversight by the board, has opened an opportunity to revise the parade’s mission and structure in function of the Puerto Rican communities’ best interest and needs. In that process the true history of the parade, which remains after all a cultural icon, has to be revisited.
I do not believe in “the good old days.” But I am of the opinion that: “[th]ose who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana) and that “[e]ach time history repeats itself, the price goes up” (anonymous).
[i] “New leadership working on Puerto Rican Day Parade,” Eyewitness News, 1 April 2014. Accessed 5 July 2014. http://7online.com/archive/9487932/. See also Vivian Yee and Julie Turkewitziune, “A Proud Swirl of Sound and Spectacle: After Scandal, Puerto Rican Day Parade Goes ‘Back to Its Roots.” New York Times, 8 June 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/nyregion/after-scandal-puerto-rican-day-parade-goes-back-to-its-roots.html?_r=0ee/
© Carlos Rodríguez Fraticelli. Published in Centro Voices 17 September 2014.
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My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…