A Spectacle in Red, White and Blue
By VIVIAN YEE and JULIE TURKEWITZ
The New York Times | June 09,2014
NEW YORK — The parade could be seen and heard several blocks away from Fifth Avenue, where determined visitors armed with folding chairs and coolers had been lining the route since early Sunday morning. Red, white and blue flags fluttered like capes from the backs of people heading toward Bryant Park. Salsa music pumped from the floats and coursed through the streets. Cheers rose above the roar of Manhattan traffic.
They came for the start-of-summer celebration that is the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, as large and festive as ever as it made its way up Fifth Avenue on Sunday. But if it seemed unchanged in the essentials, this year’s parade wore a slightly more serious attitude, coming just four months after a new board took over after revelations of financial mismanagement and rising concern that the parade’s corporate sponsorships had turned a cherished cultural celebration into a commercial spectacle.
Like the annual parades that cheer Ireland’s St. Patrick and the culture of the West Indies, the Puerto Rican Day Parade is one of city’s the defining ethnic celebrations, drawing as many as 2 million spectators. It began in 1958 as a way to foster pride among a population that found itself marginalized; that history made the recent troubles all the more painful for the parade faithful.
Sunday was the new board’s opportunity to deliver on its promise of a parade “that is a prideful exhibition of Puerto Rican culture and heritage” and that would move it past the drama touched off by the 2013 parade, when the previous board approved a commemorative can of Coors Light beer decorated with a modified version of the Puerto Rican flag. Some elected officials and community activists found the image insulting, not to mention inconsistent with the parade’s focus on health.
Then in February, the office of Eric T. Schneiderman, the state attorney general, announced that it had found a pattern of financial mismanagement in the parade’s nonprofit organizer, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade Inc. A lack of oversight had allowed a marketer for the parade to misappropriate $1 million for his own benefit, the investigation concluded.
On Sunday, several parade-goers said they were disappointed in the event’ previous organizers.
“We’re a proud people,” Luis Jimenez, 50, who attended with his mother, said against a backdrop of blaring horns, dancing beauty queens and sweating, grinning, flag-bedecked crowds. “It puts a bad taste in your mouth.”
This year’s parade marked not only a break with that episode, but a triumph, too. Leading the parade, as one of the grand marshals, was the City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico and who is the first “boricua” to hold citywide elected office.
She had stood alongside Schneiderman in February as he announced the reforms to the parade. On Sunday, she reveled in a much brighter moment.
“It has an added significance to me this year, for two reasons,” she said in an interview, after gamely shaking her hips atop the Boricuas for a Positive Image float. “One: The community is celebrating my accomplishing being the speaker of the City Council — it’s a great recognition for the community overall. And two: We’ve taken this parade back to its roots.”
This year’s parade featured marchers dedicated to Julia de Burgos, a Puerto Rican poet born a century ago, as well as a succession of banners calling for the release of Oscar López Rivera, a former leader of a radical Puerto Rican independence group, who has been in federal prison since the 1980s.
Up and down Fifth Avenue, Puerto Ricans, particularly women, said that the event was a day to celebrate the community’s political ascension.
“We finally got a boricua, and a female,” said Maria Lopez, 32, who stood with her daughter, Alexis, 4.
Nereida Diaz, 66, said she had attended 27 National Puerto Rican Day Parades. “This one is the best,” she said.
Why? “Estamos para arriba,” she said — we’re moving on up.
But for most, the parade was much as it had always been, a party unburdened by anything more problematic than a sweat-soaked shirt.
Sean Greco’s son, Jayce, who just turned 2 years old, rode high on his father’s shoulders.
“I used to come here every year with my grandfather, and I’m just carrying on the tradition,” said Greco, 26. “Just to see all of our people having fun — it’s great.”