Community Pride, Corruption, and Renewal: The Tumultuous History of the Puerto Rican Day Parade

Photo: Andrew Vargas for Remezcla

We’re all familiar with the ocean of undulating red, white, and blue flags that comes crashing down upon a luxurious stretch of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue each year on the second Sunday in June. For decades, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade has been one of the country’s most visible expressions of ethnic pride, and its yearly celebration is embedded into the fabric of New York culture. From 43rd street up to East 79th, tens of thousands of marchers animate a crowd of millions who pour in from around the country to show their colors, herded through a complex network of police barriers as traffic snarls for miles around them. But as any article written on the subject will invariably mention, the parade has not been without its share of controversy and outcry.

In recent years, a few high-profile crimes with minimal relation to the parade have thrown fuel on the fire of covert racists who decry the “danger” brought to Manhattan by the raucous affair, while middle-class professionals from the island cringe at what some perceive as a tasteless and hollow expression of pride foreign to their sensibilities. To boot, over six decades the cultural event has consolidated into a 1.8 mile walking advertisement for the yearly horde of corporations that cough up as much as $800,000 for everything from festival logistics to a modest scholarship fund created by the festival’s organizing committee.

Photo: Andrew S. Vargas
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It’s no wonder many community activists have criticized the parade’s prioritization of big-money sponsors over the wholesome cultural activities of years past, but these nostalgic invocations of the “good old days” beg the question: what are the actual origins of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade”?

The answer lies in the decade of the 1950s, when New York’s Puerto Rican population skyrocketed due to a massive exodus of surplus labor from the island. New arrivals encountered a small pre-existing community living alongside scattered pockets of Cubans and other Latinos, but the newly established residents found themselves especially vulnerable to police abuse, labor exclusion, and institutional indifference. To the growing number of Puerto Rican cultural organizations serving this community, the solution to their problems was clear: follow the model of more well-established Italian and Irish communities and show the city a unified, powerful front in the form of a highly visible parade.

But things weren’t so simple. Originally conceived as a broader coalition, the aptly named Hispanic Parade was founded in 1955 and promptly pissed off a diverse array of detractors: from integrationists who preferred not to make a big deal out of their ethnic identity, to Puerto Rican exceptionalists who felt a coalition was counterproductive, and even the Catholic Church, who worried the Parade’s use of the feast day of Saint John the Baptist would take away from the religious importance of the holiday. Eventually, several Puerto Rican organizations split off to form the New York Puerto Rican Parade in 1958, which maintained an uncomfortable coexistence with the Hispanic Parade until the latter was discontinued in 1962.

With its newfound monopoly on Puerto Rican visibility in New York, the Puerto Rican Parade brought together a plethora of community organizations in a democratically elected organizing committee that, according to researcher Carlos Rodríguez Fraticelli, had no paid members and prohibited any sort political or corporate promotion. While many might consider these the golden years of the Puerto Rican Parade, Rodríguez points out that this democratic structure caused for constant power struggles and a lack of continuity in the parade’s content. Thus, the stage was set for an astute political operator to consolidate his influence over what had already become one of the city’s most important cultural celebrations.

The origins of the modern Puerto Rican Day Parade lie directly in the political maneuvering of the infamous Ramón S. Vélez, aka “Don Ramón” or “El Padrino.” The son of a poor farmer from Hormigueros, Puerto Rico, Vélez studied on the island before pursuing a law degree at the University of Salamanca in Spain, and he arrived in New York at the age of 28 after a stint in the U.S. Army. Vélez quickly went about building an empire of community centers providing subsidized social services to residents of the South Bronx, and lined his pockets by funneling the contracts into his own private companies. After taking full control of the parade’s organizing committee in 1974, Vélez “controlled the Puerto Rican Day Parade with an iron fist,” in the words of a New York Times obituary.

Ramón S. Vélez
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Under Vélez, the organizing committee’s democratic structure was dismantled and the event was christened the National Puerto Rican Day Parade and re-incorporated as a 501 3(c) non-profit in 1995. Regarding Vélez’s legacy, Daily News columnist Juan González minced no words when he asserted that Vélez “turned [the parade] into a moneymaking extravaganza dominated by liquor and beer company floats, scantily dressed women and pulsating music.” What’s more, Vélez’s dubious model of enriching himself through social services was brought over to the governance of the parade, and five years after his death in 2008 the very organizing committee he mentored was under scrutiny for handing off the parade’s contracts to their own private companies. Vélez himself had been barred from organizing the event after a 1978 corruption investigation, but the charges didn’t stick and Vélez was quickly back in control.

It’s clear that a new generation of Nuyoricans isn’t content merely sitting around and waiting for the parade that they deserve.

After the 2013 shake up, Vélez’s posthumous grip on the parade was finally broken and the organizing committee was purged from top to bottom. In their place, a new crop of fresh faces has made it their mission to get the parade back on a more ethically and culturally responsible track, though it’s quite possible the bureaucratic inertia of this monumental corporate extravaganza has left them with little room to maneuver. This year’s spotlight on LGBT Puerto Ricans and the designation of more socially conscious honorees was certainly a step in the right direction, and the event had special resonance in the wake of the tragic nightclub massacre in Orlando, which took the lives of numerous LGBT Boricuas.

In the meantime, a series of smaller, neighborhood-based events like the Sunset Park Puerto Rican Day Parade has begun to spring up across the city to provide a more culturally-oriented alternative. This year marked the second officially-recognized edition of the Sunset Park parade, which also seeks to improve community relations with the NYPD. Stretching from 60th street down to 42nd street on Brooklyn’s own Fifth Avenue, the 2nd annual Sunset Park Puerto Rican Day Parade drew revelers from across the borough who ooh’ed and aah’ed as classic car enthusiasts and Puerto Rican motorcycle clubs cruised the avenue alongside traditional vejigantes and bomba dancers.

Photo: Andrew S. Vargas
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What the future holds for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade is entirely the hands of its current organizers, but it is clear that a new generation of Nuyoricans isn’t content merely sitting around and waiting for the parade that they deserve.