Right when I needed it, a New York parade took me to my beloved island.
Us Puerto Ricans often make ourselves palpable: heard, seen and felt, wherever we land. Officially a Nuyorican, as having just moved to New York City last September, nothing could make me happier than the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Furthermore, it is emblematic of that palpability.
Originally, it was my mother’s suggestion. Someone who lived here during the 90’s, she brought the annual event to my attention in a text. She said it was something I “have to live through at least once.” Immediately on board, I told her it was an excellent idea.
However, the logistics of it all caused anxiety. I wasn’t sure what I’d do and I didn’t have anyone to go with. It was late May, so most students, and most Puerto Rican coeds I knew at NYU were away. Nonetheless, there was no doubt in my mind, the festivities were my top priority.
A little Google search led me to the time, date, and location of the parade: June 12, starting a block from the famous 42nd Street. It turned out to be a perfectly accessible location. More importantly, I discovered that the parade, like most of America’s recreational events, had been canceled the previous two years due to complications surrounding the ongoing pandemic. This meant that this year’s parade was likely to have more passion.
In fact, the organizers billed this year’s celebration “the big return,” with an expectation to see most of its 1.5 million spectators. Definitely, the annual event has come a long way. Established in 1955, the parade reflected the population boom of Puerto Ricans to the area who settled and reshaped an enclave they called “El Barrio.” Like many migrants, the parade transported a very Caribbean and Latin American cultural ritual. Since, it has experienced multiple versions of itself with both public and private tug-of-wars of its direction. A million-plus strong with celebrities and community-goers, it has become a mainstay in NYC.
Like any good Puerto Rican, I love to debate and find out about the politics of anything, but people like me yearned for the collective revelry. I craved the music, the dancing, the energy—so ultimately, the timing was more than good news, it was what my spirit needed.
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When the day arrived, in true boricua style, I made myself some signature homestyle coffee after waking up. Pulling my stash from the cabinets—an ample supply of Café Crema Ground Puerto Rican Coffee sent by my parents—the simple ritual of aromatic, reddish-brown beans sweetened with a nice amount of froth, assured me that there’s nothing like the brewed caffeine from the soil you also walk.
What many do not know, the best coffee comes from Puerto Rico. I promise you. Grown primarily in the western Cordillera Central, a mountainous region, Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora came to the island around the 1730s with Spanish explorers. The merchants transported the eastern and western African tropical plants to bolster trade in one of the most coveted crops in the world.
The shade, sunlight and rainwater from the central mountain range allowed a bio-sanctuary that eventually turned a modest agriculture to a booming coffee industry. So popular was the island’s coffee, its production made Puerto Rico the sixth leading coffee producer in the world at its peak at the turn of the 20th century. While the hurricane trifecta in 2017 destabilized crops, slowly but surely, production is picking back up.
Basking in the knowledge of my agro-heritage, I thoroughly enjoyed the café as I mentally prepared for the day. Hurriedly, I grabbed my bag then hopped on a subway headed to Grand Central Station. Once off, I made my way to the parade.
Truthfully, I wasn’t quite sure how to reach the parade itself. I knew I had to be close. With every step, a sea of red, blue and white hues engulfed me. The more I walked, the more Puerto Rican flags and memorabilia decorated my pathway, as I closed in on kickoff location.
After squeezing past some fences, the nostalgic smell of iconic Puerto Rican dishes hit me. The spices from pernil, arroz con gandules, mofongo, tostones, carne asada and pasteles danced through my olfactory nerves, which sent memories into overdrive. At that moment, I realized just how much my beloved home island was missed. The smells coupled with the Café Crema surging through me spiked an anticipation that felt as if my soul was slowly catching fire. Calming down, I had to find a good spot for the day.
Since I was alone, my next step was to look for people more or less my age. To my misfortune, the people there were mostly older adults or children way younger than me. Nonetheless, I remained undeterred and decided to keep looking for a good spot in the growing crowd. As it turns out, that was much easier than expected.
One of the largest processions in the U.S. thousands of revelers walk from 43rd Street to East 79th Street. Since the parade stretches as long as it does, I had more than an ample amount of choices.
After settling down in my spot, I watched the parade for a while as plenty of floats and groups of people passed on by. They all showcased a variety of facets of the island’s identity: from Taíno to African ethnicities and Spanish conquistadors. A theme in this year’s parade focused on climate change like all of the Caribbean. Largely due to the island taking huge hits during the 2017 hurricane season, and the storms that followed, “the Parade . . . underscore[d] the need for climate action by raising awareness,” explained the organizers. As each group vividly represented their cultural lens, the parade painted the complexity of the island, all the while, exhibiting a complete and colorful portrait with prominent facets of tradition.
Just in Puerto Rican fashion, you cannot have a gathering without protest. In the procession, demonstrators held picket signs in protest of the privatization of beaches in the island. Another group marched against U.S. influence on the island. In my culture, carnivalesque and dissent can occupy both spaces at the same time. So while I soaked in the beautiful displays that passed by me, I deeply appreciated the rebel spirit.
One of the collectives was a group of dancers that showcased a gorgeous display of the musical part of the island’s culture. Certain regions are known for different sounds and rhythms. Even though the parade took place in NYC, people celebrated specific municipalities from the island such as Aguadilla, Ponce, Arecibo, San Juan, and Bayamón.
Notably, there were even a handful of openly queer people participating throughout the parade. Sprinkled throughout the sidewalks and parade participants, I noticed versions of the Puerto Rican flag with the red and white replaced with the colors of the rainbow seen in the rainbow pride flag.
Although the fact that the parade was during Pride Month likely had some influence over that, it shows the growing presence of the LGBTQ+ community in the island, as well as, an increasing open acceptance of it. Several years back, there was a visible push for the festival organizers to recognize the Pride community, plus they challenged them to include more socially conscious heroes.
Considering the island has a traditional Roman Catholic background and keeps a very strong traditional presence of it, this goes to show that, simply put, times are changing. Younger generations like my own are moving to accept and fight for the equal rights of the LGBTQ+ community, even if there is still a long way to go.
Speaking of flags, I was handed one by a man giving them for free in the parade. It was a rather large one as well, with the flag itself being about a foot tall and two feet wide. Waving it in sync with the rhythms of the chants and dances, I represented as much as I could.
Admittedly, after a while, boredom started to blur my initial fascinations. The displays were all lovely, but there was something akin to an itch within me. It was an itch to participate directly rather than to sit by contentedly as a spectator. It did not help that absent was someone I felt I could talk to as we experienced the ostentatious procession together.
To shake off my growing blues, I tried walking up for a bit. Some time later, I decided to settle myself around a somewhat large crowd of people. In truth, I decided to stop there mainly because someone had a cute dog. Hopefully, they’d oblige my ask of petting their adorable pet.
Then, in a completely unexpected turn of events, some people opened up the fences that contained the crowd of spectators. Like Moses parting the Red Sea for passage, we were given entry. Understanding that this could be my only chance to participate in such a way, I decided to stick with the crowd, allowing their natural flow to take me directly into the procession.
This spontaneous act of joy was my only chance at being part of something bigger than myself. My gut churned in encouragement, but I noticed the group carried signs that supported a politician I did not know. Instinctively, I knew I would live to regret allowing my anxiety to overwhelm the face of that opportunity more than living to regret parading for an unfamiliar elected official.
With the gates behind me shut and passing the point of no return, I marched forward with the crowd. Occasionally waving the flag gifted to me earlier, our band of partygoers headed towards the increasingly large number of people watching the ad hoc uninvited paraders.
For a while, I just soaked in the moment as well as the potential ramifications of my relatively impulsive decision. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if someone recognized me from the crowd or in some of the photos and videos being taken. My Puerto Rican respectability was kicking in. Eventually, I shrugged it off.
“Break out of your shell Sebastian.” At the point I surrendered to pure bliss is when I began to truly enjoy the moment. The smiles on the faces of those watching warmed my heart. Again, I was immersed in nostalgia. I felt home in a way that I hadn’t experienced until then.
Eventually, I reached the front of the group, which was around the time we reached the southeast corner of Central Park and the crowds of spectators grew to be massive undulations of people dancing, singing, smiling, and like me, centering themselves in culture and memory. That was also where there were several news stations broadcasting the parade, mainly in networks local to Puerto Rico itself.
By that point, I’d long since ditched any anxiety over my situation and was living happily in the moment. So much so, I even waved and smiled at some of the nearby cameras pointed my way. I, like my fellow boricuas, made sure that I was seen.
At one point, the politician that the group fawned over joined in on the improvisational party crew. It was a kind gesture which I wouldn’t necessarily expect from every politician located stateside. Often, it feels like politicians on the mainland care little about Puerto Rico. Despite the reminder of that foul truth, again, I shook off the thoughts to dig deeper in the celebration. I had to extract as much from home as possible.
Before that day, I had a few Puerto Rican dishes. That was fine because being able to immerse myself in my homeland’s culture filled me ways that food lacked. Walking back to the train, tired and elated simultaneously, it came to me. The city brought me Puerto Rico just when I needed it. In truth, it also taught me home will always be within arm’s reach. In that respect, I’ll never truly be alone in that respect. In the end, nothing really beats celebrating your culture.
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