Every year there seems to be an issue with the National Puerto Rican day parade held in New York City. The last few years it has been with the issue of Coors Brewing Company insisting on promoting its Coors beer with our national pride, our flag and our culture. First it was "EMBORICUATE" and now it's the Puerto Rican flag on a can of Coors. The fact that our community has a high level of alcohol abuse does not seem to bother the organizers of the parade.
What's next, allowing the tobacco companies to target and promote smoking to our community with a pack of cigarettes with the Puerto Rican flag and no warning labels? The board of the parade does not seem to learn and our community's protest in the form of a few meetings and social networking is not going to change a thing. The problem is not Coors alone. The real problem is the Board of Directors for approving these insulting campaigns and the marketing company of the parade that should have the sense to advise the board.
For this reason, perhaps we need to go back a little in history. For me the biggest issue I remember with the parade was in the early 1970s when I, and many of my friends fought the police who began to beat on us and drew guns when we jumped in front of the parade with a giant Puerto Rican flag. Yes, we were beaten by police (many of us fought back) because we wanted the parade to start with the Puerto Rican flag and not the American flags that the parade organizers insisted would lead that years' parade. Like today, the board of the parade was out of touch with the very community that they claim that they were representing.
Back then, we might not have had the political consciousness we have now, but we knew enough that if the Puerto Rican day parade was our parade, then the first flag had to be ours.
The parade organizers would not change their mind when we requested we wanted the PR flag in the front. So a coalition of Puerto Rican organization led by the Young Lords and El Comité-MINP two strong grassroot political groups began to organize a clandestine campaign to take the front of the parade when it reached Central Park South and march with a giant 40-foot Puerto Rican flag in the front. We did not have Facebook, Twitter, or any of the social networking tools that we have now that makes it so easy for us to express ourselves today. We organized the old-fashioned way with phone calls, meetings, word of mouth, and flyers.
The Lords and EC-MINP organized a small contingent of members that were the ones to take the front of the parade. Looking back at history I remember us being the "kamikaze" group. We held self-defense classes to prepare us for what we knew was going to be a battle with the police who were known to be vicious against our community. We prepared by taping balsa wood strips to our arms wearing long sleeve shirts to cover our makeshift defense against the police batons that they were going to be aimed at our heads. We each also had a small plastic bag with a handkerchief soaked in lemon juice in case they threw tear gas. We went there determined to take the front of the parade at all cost.
As it proved, the cost was high as we only held the parade for a few minutes with the giant Puerto Rican flag because as soon as we broke through the police barricades to unravel the giant flag we were confronted by a small army of police that began to hit us like a Mexican piñata. Some of us fought back, but we were no match. They chased us, some of us heard what we thought were gunshots (they must have shot up in the air since no one was reported injured by gunfire). I and others jumped the high walls of Central Park and ran for our lives across the park until we got to the West side office of El Comité on 88th Street and Columbus Avenue to count our losses.
Unfortunately, some of my other compañeros were not that lucky; instead of running towards the park, they were on the east side of Fifth Avenue and were caught by more police reinforcement coming from Madison Avenue. One such brother was Noel Colón from El Comité who was surrounded by police and beaten viciously. Noel bravely fought back, but his punches were not as effective as the nightsticks landing on his body. One cameraman was able to film that incident and thanks to that, many of us will never forget what happened that day when a small group of valiant, idealist and brave young men and women took on the parade organizers and police. We might have lost that battle, but we knew then as we know now that we won the war because ever since then the Puerto Rican flag has always been in the front of the parade.
The parade organizers back then were no different than those here today, in fact some might be the same, just a a lot older. Unfortunately, they are as out of touch with the Puerto Rican community today as they were then. The Puerto Rican parade has become one big "billboard" to promote every company that wants to pay to be seen by the thousands of Boricuas and other Latinos that become Puerto Rican for the day. The real cultural and historical contributions has all but been lost if not because of the participation of various towns and organizations from Puerto Rico.
I understand that the parade organizers need a lot of money to promote this huge spectacle and for any fringe benefits they get for being on the board. However, they need to have someone, or the marketing arm of the parade be more responsible and help guide the parade from approving these ridiculous and insulting promotional campaigns that due nothing but continue to portray our community as something that it is not.
Perhaps the parade organizers and their marketing arm should be reminded that one of these days people might not protest via Facebook, or social networking and go back to the old days and just physically show up at a board meeting and force them to explain their actions in person.