When I was a little boy growing up in the Bronx in the '80s, one great memory I have is the summers I was part of a small drum major group. Known more commonly as "Batuteras," it consisted mostly of young girls twirling batons or pom-poms in formation, lead by older girls playing portable xylophones, and a group of (mostly boy) drummers marking the beats in the back.
I was with the drummers. We were made up mostly of poor and working class families from around the South Bronx. But the summers were ours, as we practiced our routines, and prepared for the Superbowl of events -- the New York City National Puerto Rican Day Parade. We would march down 5th avenue in our white hats and fringed red jackets, braving the heat and the two mile march laden with percussion instruments of varying sizes, while our parents walked proudly behind us as the crowds watching the parade would cheer us on.
Years later in the '90s, I would return to the parade as a college student and graduate marching with members of my fraternity to not only show our latest "stroll" moves, but also try to set examples for the community that higher education is attainable with hard work and focus. Again, the cheers and comments from the crowds showed us that we were doing something right and encouraged us to continue to move forward knowing that we were doing so for our community.
The parade has always been a holiday for me. Even now, that weekend in June is about the rhythm, the sights, and the images of Puerto Rico. I proudly wear my "Puerto Rico gear" and turn the radio on to hear the classic Salsa music that was the soundtrack to my childhood. Though I was born in the United States, parade weekend reminds next generation Boricuas like me that we are still part of the family.
But as happens with all families, we have come to a cross roads. For years, the image of the parade has been in steady decline. It has changed from a family event to celebrate history and culture, to something parents don't want their kids going to. It has been lampooned by comedians, and seen as a reason for Upper East Siders to go away for the weekend. These reactions are indeed an insult, especially considering how much drunkenness and bad behavior are associated with events like the St. Patrick's Day parade and New Year's eve, though those gatherings don't get the same level of scorn suffered by the Puerto Rican community.
Meanwhile, the parade itself has become less and less about the community it is supposed to uplift and instill pride in, and more about putting on a good show for the TV cameras. Major sponsors and celebrities are given priority over community organizations, and groups like the one I used to belong to, are relegated to the unfavorable positions all the way in the back the parade, marching at the tail end when everyone is tired, has lost interest, or has gone home. I even remember one year watching the event on an English language television station, where the non-Puerto Rican TV hosts couldn't recognize some of the well known artists passing in front of them and would skip over completely young people performing for the crowds as they searched for the cross-over mega stars.
The latest controversy involving the Parade is another example of just how far away from its mission the parade has gone. The recent uproar over the Puerto Rican flag being placed on a parade sponsor's beer can perhaps has less to do with the sponsor as it does with the general disillusionment of people who can still remember when the event was more about families and tradition. I personally don't have an issue with the Coors Light can, I bought one myself and it looks kind of cool. I see this as being no different than the flag being placed on a milieu of products, including bikinis, towels, hats, fans and even cigarette lighters that we see during parade time. I understand how some may see this as associating Puerto Rico with alcoholism, but my feeling is that people will drink or not drink beer regardless of what's on a can, and we should not give this imagery the kind of power we've heaped upon it.
The debate has been between a group of community activists and the Board of the NYPRDP (New York Puerto Rican Day Parade). There have even been protests, calls for the Board to resign, and dueling interviews on news stations like CNN Latino where NYPRDP board president Madelyn Lugo and Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito both defended their opposing viewes -- for the details of this see:
The reaction by the NYPRDP board is a text book example of having a "tin ear" to the real issues. While this beer can issue is a distraction, they see any criticism to their decision making as political opportunists trying to get exposure, or to take over their jobs on the board. This is short sighted and laughably simplistic. The Board needs to understand that many people, including many next generation, working and middle class families, are not finding themselves reflected in the parade. The focus on celebrities and endorsements has led them to make some very bad decisions.In 2010 the board had to reverse their choice of giving celebrity Osvaldo Rios the honorary title of Padrino of the Parade because of controversy over his involvement in a domestic abuse case. In 2011 Coors was again the focus of criticism when they launched their "Emboricuate" campaign to coincide with the parade -- which was deemed to reference the word "Emborachate" which means "Get drunk," with the word "Boricua" embedded in it. Even someone like me who assumes the best of intentions can't defend that marketing fiasco.
Sadly, the parade has been under increased scrutiny ever since the 2000 central park assaults, and the board has met criticism without really learning the real lesson -- that the parade needs to go back to its roots, and be a family event again. How do they do that? Well, focus on the individuals that make up the community -- the children, the families. Themes should be focused on education, promoting a culture of work, and providing positive images outside of the celebrity that people can look to for inspiration.
There probably does need to be a more diverse set of voices on that board, people who can bring different types of experiences and can change the current discourse and tone of the event. And mostly, we have to remember that for many children, this parade is their super bowl. It is their chance to show that they are part of a community with a proud and rich tradition, and a chance for the community to show them that they are welcomed. We should focus on these traditions, and less on these scandals.