The National Puerto Rican Day Parade And
The Redefining of a National Identity
By Manuel Hernández
A twenty-two year old nephew and a 2002 graduate at the University
of Puerto Rico, on a recent visit to the 2002 National Puerto
Rican Day Parade to New York City, shared with me some interesting
impressions of the Puerto Ricans there and made a few striking
remarks about how his perception of a national identity had
changed once he left the Parade and reflected on what he had
seen and experienced while participating in the largest parade
in the United States.
He was dazed at the sight of so many Puerto Rican flags being
waved along Fifth Avenue and proudly displayed on tee-shirts,
nails, hats, cheeks, heads and in other parts of the human
body. In-spite of majoring in Puerto Rican history, it was
hard for him to understand how and why Puerto Ricans in New
York elected to celebrate and preserve culture without apprehension.
He spoke about how proud and happy they seemed after singing
the one-hundredth version of "Que Bonita Bandera".
I replied by giving Tomas a crash course on New York Puerto
Ricans and how I felt the parade reflected a redefinition
of a national identity.
Most New York Puerto Rican Historians agree that Puerto Ricans
have been migrating to New York as early as 1830. But in an
interview for Carmen Dolores Hernandez' Puerto Rican Voices
in English, a New York poet, Louis Reyes Rivera, stems the
migration in the late 1700's:
Puerto Ricans in New York are traceable to the American
Revolution and even before, given that Puerto Rico was
New England's single largest customer for smuggling
Operations which were intended to avoid paying taxes
Commercial ties and the trading of raw materials paved the
way for the early settlers. Towards the latter part of the
19th century, political circumstances proved to be the most
important migration factor. Puerto Ricans who were against
Spanish rule voluntarily left the Island or were exiled.
After the United States obtained political control of the
Island, more working-class Puerto Ricans came to New York.
By World War II, there were close to 150,000 people of Puerto
Rican origin in New York. Your grandparents migrated to New
York in the late 1950's. They were part of a massive immigration
movement inspired by the new Puerto Rican Commonwealth Government
of 1952 and its political and economic links to the United
States. "Los viejos" joined thousands of Puerto
Ricans in their quest of the American Dream.
The new immigrants founded a Puerto Rico of their own called
"El Barrio". "The New York Island" stretched
across 96th Street North to 127th Street and Fifth Avenue
East in Manhattan. During the summers, "El Barrio"
came alive with the sounds of "La Isla Del Encanto".
Puerto Ricans brought their music, food and traditions to
New York. As American citizens, they felt no need to deny
their culture. Spanish was kept alive at home. It was an inexpensive
ticket back home, and many that came went back to "La
Isla" or became extraordinary elements in the revolving
The first Puerto Rican Day Parade took place on Sunday, April
12, 1958 in "El Barrio". The Parade went National
in 1995 to extend its frontiers and outreach. The Parade was
established to create a national conscience and to appreciate
the Puerto Rican culture and its contributions to the American
society. It also stimulates the study, progress and development
of the Puerto Rican culture and art. The National Puerto Rican
Day Parade is a yearly event with on-going educational, cultural,
social and artistic presentations throughout the year. Close
to two million people attend the Parade making it the largest
outdoor celebration event in the United States.
My nephew had listened for the past twenty-minutes, but he
interrupted me and asked "Ok, that sounds interesting
Tio but how is the Parade reflective of a Puerto Rican national
identity?" I calmed him down and gave him my personal
Puerto Ricans in New York are holding on to their culture.
For us, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade is more than
just a celebration of sorts. It is an expression of national
identity. By reaffirming our Puerto Ricanness as a people,
we define ourselves as a nation. Remember Tomas; it is only
when you leave the Island that you begin to understand that
you are a Puerto Rican. The political mayhem on the Island
does not allow you to flavor or even sense a national identity.
Just the mentioning of the term nation, frightens Island scholars
and academics alike. Flags are only pulled up after Tito Trinidad
wins a fight or whenever a major Puerto Rican celebrity reaches
a milestone or makes history. The red, blue and green politicians
attend the National event to make connections or to have an
excuse to take a week off from work. Some Islanders will say
that there is no need to honor the Puerto Rican flag, but
Americans honor their flag in every corner and block in the
Puerto Ricans in New York have a sense of nostalgia because
those that left as children take with them the Puerto Rico
of their childhood. Those that left as adolescents struggled
to adjust to another identity and in the tug of war dreamed
with the Island every day. The adults that migrated had every
day visions with the green plantain fields and blue green
beaches and dream of going back and buying a "finquita".
They did not have to hide or bury their identity.
The American way of life celebrates the reaffirmation of national
identities precisely because the United States was founded
and populated by immigrants. You my dear nephew have had a
close encounter of the third kind with your national identity.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans will experience the same identity
crisis when they migrate to New York City.