Puerto Ricans parade their pride

Chicago’s Puerto Rican community celebrates cultural pride

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]n array of red, white and blue flags was proudly seen all throughout Chicago last week—but they weren’t U.S. flags. This past weekend was the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade and Fiestas. This year marks the 36 anniversary of the community parade and not a touch of its vibrancy has been lost. All day, individuals flocked to Humboldt Park to enjoy the blaring meringue music and tantalizing food vendors.

The Puerto Rican Parade traditionally ran throughout downtown, but as of last year it has been relocated to the predominantly Puerto Rican community in Humboldt Park. Some applauded this decision, declaring that the parade belongs within the true Puerto Rican community. Others believed this decision has altered the long time tradition of hosting the parade in the heart of Chicago. There have been various heated debates on both sides. 

“The parade belongs on Division. It is the historic area of the Puerto Rican community and the retail area downtown is disconnected from the community and does not foster a cultural connection. With the parade on Division, it showcases the authentic community so that visitors can learn more about the people,” commented Hank Zemola, founder and chief executive officer of Chicago’s Special Events Management. 

Chicago native and Puerto Rican Yaslin Ruiz, however, had a different take on the issue. 

“I don’t like that it’s being squeezed into a smaller box and since it isn’t a secret that Humboldt Park isn’t the safest neighborhood in the city, I don’t understand why they’d force thousands of people, lots of children, to crowd on one avenue to show pride in a culture that is being pushed out of the one neighborhood they call their own,” said Ruiz.

Certainly the issue is contentious, and it’s made worse with the shortening of the festival from the original six days to four. However, despite the alterations made to the festival, cars crammed with Puerto Rican enthusiasts nonetheless filled up Division and California as the parade kicked off at 2 p.m. Women held their babies decked in Puerto Rican gear on their hips as they danced along to the meringue booming through the streets and grandfathers grinned as they waved their flag proudly—certainly, the majority of the crowd forgot their woes among all the cultural pride. 

Performers included Lefty Perez, Latin Groove and Grammy award winner Louie Vega as the presenter. An estimated 75 floats, 100 food vendors and 300 arts and crafts booths were also in attendance, making the parade one of the largest Latin music festivals in the Midwest. While the festival has always maintained a consistently large crowd, this year’s success was largely attributed to superior planning and newly formed partnerships.

“We started earlier and were able to incorporate more cultural aspects this year. We were able to feature a few iconic old school entertainers from Puerto Rico,” explained Zemola. 

This year, the festival also teamed up with the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, a grassroots organization geared towards addressing the needs of the Puerto Rican community. The organization was created after the 1966 Division Street Riots—a massive series of protests in response to a cop shooting a Puerto Rican man. Since then, the center has helped students in the community graduate, teaches HIV/AIDS educational and preventative classes, and hosts a bilingual daycare, among other programs. 

“I thought the partnership between the Puerto Rican Parade of Chicago and the Puerto Rican Cultural Center demonstrated a great sense of community,” said Zemola.

Regardless of the tensions and disputes that accumulated within the festival planning, the event was an overall success. Humboldt Park has been undergoing various changes in the past few years, largely due to the immense gentrification that has been occurring near and within the Humboldt Park community. While Chicago’s Puerto Rican community is not limited to the parameters of Humboldt Park, these demographic changes make it imperative for the Puerto Rican voice to remain strong. 

“As the neighborhood changes, it’s important that the history of the Puerto Rican community is memorialized and that this history is not forgotten as some of our great city leaders and visionaries have come from this area,” added Zemola. 

From the looks of this year’s Puerto Rican festivities, it seems that the Chicago Puerto Rican community has no plans to forget its roots

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