In the hallway of my house there is a photograph of my parents when they were still married to each other. My mom is wearing a sundress and my dad a suit, tie and a bright red sash with the word "mariscal" written on it. I stand between them, age four, in a sailor outfit, holding a Puerto Rican flag. I remember that day as hot. My dad, who held a position for the City of New York under Mayor Ed Koch, urged me along the parade route telling me to "smile and wave." I don't remember that Puerto Rican Day Parade as being very fun. It just felt long.
The next Puerto Rican Day Parade I can remember, I was 15-years-old and accompanied my half Rican, half Ecuadorian boyfriend and his family. His mom packed a pot of rice and beans and pernil and I peeled the "P" and "R" off a wooden NYPD barricade and stuck them to the back of my retro bell bottoms.
My early National Puerto Rican Day Parade memories reflect my own personal lack of clarity about what the day is about. Current controversies around corporate sponsorship and questionable leadership reveal a much larger ambiguity of the purpose of the Fifth Avenue fanfare. When the parade was first started in the late 1950s, it was held in El Barrio aka Spanish Harlem, where so many arrived from the island, pushed out by Operation Bootstrap and pulled in by the promise of jobs, settled. The event was an exercise in nostalgia and passing on culture to the generations born stateside. As the Puerto Rican population in New York City grew so did it's political influence, and the route, moved to Fifth Avenue, became a place to press the flesh for Rican votes.
Arguably, Puerto Rican political power in the Big Apple has dwindled as Latin Americans including Mexicans and Dominicans settle in once Rican enclaves. Many of the Puerto Rican families that settled in New York City as Baby Boomers have moved their families to other parts of the country, like Orlando, Florida. The parade, as described by one man in a recent New York Times article , has become "one big commercial." Millions crowd the streets not to hear traditional sounds like Bomba or to find the banner representing their ancestral town back on the island, but to see stars like Jennifer Lopez or Ricky Martin. The question this raises is, is the National Puerto Rican Day Parade a relic that has outlived its purpose? Can it be and is it even worth redeeming?
I haven't waved a Puerto Rican flag anywhere close to Fifth Avenue in New York City for a number of years. My last encounter with the parade was in 2000, when a number of women were sexually assaulted during the 116th Street Festival the day before and during the parade itself. Prior to that, during the Mayor Rudolph Giuliani years, the Puerto Rican Day Parade served as space for Ricans, like myself , and other Latinos to express their displeasure with an administration that was making sweeping cuts to the City University system and targeted black and brown young men in stop and frisks that left many of them dead. When Mayor Giuliani marched, a wave of boos followed him. I helped share information along the parade route about the Navy presence in Vieques and gathered signatures on petitions to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners like Oscar Lopez Rivera. While these critical grassroots political activities continue, they happen along the margins of the parade, and most of the Puerto Rican organizing happens in smaller cultural and political spaces across the city and online.
Policing of culture is a dangerous and slippery slope and no one should be in the business of telling people how to express their pride in their heritage. But the parade and celebrations surrounding it have become a space for the New York Police Department and others to corral Latinos into tight physical and mental boxes, at the cost a real sense of history and what can be done to challenge racism and the continuing status of an island many call a colony. Perhaps instead of arguing for a reclaiming, what is needed is a realignment. Perhaps Rican Weekend should be transformed into days, weeks, years of reconnection and reinvigoration of a movement so that Puerto Ricans from Bayamón to Bushwick, keep their eye on the prize of political and cultural sovereignty, not on getting drunk on outdated culturally irrelevant displays of marketing and non-profit power plays.