Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Culture and Identity

The Redefining of a National Identity and the National Puerto Rican Day Parade

By Manuel Hernandez
A twenty-two year old nephew and a 2004 graduate at the University of Puerto Rico, on a recent visit to the 2004 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 excited, 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 and historian, 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 (121)."

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 official political control of the Island in 1898, 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 fostered 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, literature, arts, food and traditions to New York. As American citizens, they felt no need to deny their roots and 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 door syndrome.

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 borders 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 opinion. Puerto Ricans in New York are holding on to their culture.

For us US Ricans, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade is more than just a celebration of sorts. It is an expression of national identity. It's standing up for what we believe in. 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. The four-year three-party political enterprise in "La Isla" entertains itself with year long, endless and tireless futile debates on budgets, resolutions and foregone nominations. 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 in New York 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 including the Puerto Ricans born and raised in New York honor the Stars and Stripes in every school, neighborhood and community in the United States.

Puerto Ricans in New York and other cities 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 cultural warfare 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 national 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 encounter when they migrate to New York City or other major United States cities.

Manuel Hernandez is a contributing columnist to Puerto Rico Sun. He is author of a textbook titled, Latino/a Literature in The English Classroom (Editorial Plaza Mayor, 2003). He may be reached at
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