I’ve never lived in a Puerto Rican stronghold. Aside from my three years in Texas and a postdoc in a Latina/o studies program in Illinois, I’ve never really lived or worked in a big Latin@ community, either. And somehow — despite all the research and other trips over the years — I’ve never been in New York City in mid-June. While I’ve watched, in awe, the glorious spectacle that is the Puerto Rican Day Parade, I’ve never experienced it in person. So what does the annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade today mean to me?
On one level, its meaning is more affective than cognitive; which is to say, it’s not about meaning at all. To see all the social media posts, the news reports, the video and audio, the calls of WEEEEEEEPAAAAAAAAA from my computer — all of that wells up in me a feeling of pride. It’s the visibility of Boricuas for this one day, the sense of kinship, the excitement, the joy. I get goosebumps and long to be part of the face-to-face experience. That longing, of course, is the melancholic twin of the pride and joy. I smile and ache simultaneously.
This day also conjures up history — the history of Spanish colonialism, of Taíno genocide, of slavery, of rebellion, of US colonialism, of forced sterilization, of economic exploitation, and on and on. Like the history of many peoples, our is filled with highs and lows, great victories and defeats. It’s a history that too often isn’t told in our schools and is misunderstood by well-intentioned people as much as ill-intentioned ones. It’s a history that, as I write about in my new book on the Young Lords, largely wasn’t available in English until the 1970s … at least, not in a way that wasn’t tainted by colonial racism.
This day also conjures the history of the Parade itself. For me, it’s not just the recent history of commercialization and corruption. Rather, I think about some of the ways that the parade has been a site of social struggles over race, class, colonialism, and police brutality. For the Young Lords in 1971, the parade became the focus of their activism as part of their calls for “community control” and decoloniality.
Forty-four years ago, the Young Lords decided to take back the Parade from the police and the committee that was organizing it. Their demands were threefold:
The first point was, perhaps, the biggest point of contestation. It was (and I believe still is tradition, most places) for the Parade to be led by police. The committee insisted that the “Hispanic Society of the police department” would march first because it was “tradition.” In what would probably become a fateful decision, the Young Lords organized their supporters and others to take over the lead position at the beginning of the parade. In their telling of the story, this resulted in a campaign by the City and the planning committee to, in the Young Lords’ words, “scare our people and cloud the real issues,” which the Young Lords saw as being poverty, self-determination, police brutality, and more.
When the day of the parade (June 13, 1971) arrived, the Young Lords mobilized, by their estimate, about 2,000 people to take the lead in the Parade in protest of their economic and political conditions. Upon arriving and noting all the additional police in riot gear, the tried to disburse; but it was too late.
Police began a riot. The papers would report things differently, for the most part. After all, the campaign to discredit the Young Lords started as soon as they made their demands prior to the parade. The committee and others spread rumors that the Young Lords wanted to end the parade and planned to show up armed. But the Young Lords — despite their claims for armed revolution — rarely brandished firearms or were proactively violent. The police attacked people up and down the parade route. Innocent bystanders, people simply there to watch the parade, were beaten for no reason.
Earlier, I called the decision to march “fateful.” Why? This became a key moment of waning support for the Young Lords. Although their transformation into the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization in 1972, infiltration by COINTELPRO, and poor leadership within the organization would prove more significantly detrimental in the end, the parade resulted in bad PR for the group as outsiders laid blame on the Young Lords and other activists, rather than police, for the riot. Community endorsement for the Young Lords began to falter a little — enough to slow the ballooning support they’d experienced since their emergence in 1969.
With this year’s parade set to begin as this blog post goes live, my call to all who participate in New York and beyond is twofold. First, enjoy the experience. Relish this amazing moment of so many Puerto Ricans gathering with joyous spirits to represent their hometowns and political causes. If you’re in New York, appreciate how wonderful it is to be in-the-moment with your Boricua kin. If, like me, you’re not in New York, don’t seek to reconcile the feelings of joy and longing — both are part of the DiaspoRican experience. Second, don’t forget our history. Better yet, actively seek to learn and cultivate it. Learn the histories of Taíno revolt, El Grito de Lares, and the Young Lords. Learn the history of the Parade. And, seek to make history as we move forward, always forward, in the struggles for free Puerto Rican peoples.