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Philadelphia’s popular Puerto Rican Day Parade, which drew thousands to the Ben Franklin Parkway each September and was broadcast to an audience of nearly 100,000 viewers, was canceled for a second year in a row over COVID-19 concerns.
There were several small-scale events designed to foster solidarity across the city, but members of Philly’s Latino community felt its absence.
Yazmin Pabon, a Temple senior and Port Richmond native, said she grew up attending the parade with her family. They’d make t-shirts and hang out in Kensington after it ended, celebrating with other Boricuas at block parties, and welcoming back those who’d marched in the main event.
“One of my favorite moments was watching my brother dance on TV with his school, Mariana Bracetti Academy,” Pabon said. “I just felt really proud of him, and really proud of being Puerto Rican.”
After New York City, Philly has the second largest stateside Puerto Rican population, and it’s growing. Recent census data show the city’s Latino population shot up 27% over the past decade, and nearly three-quarters are of Puerto Rican descent.
The decision to cancel a parade celebrating this heritage wasn’t easy, said Adonis Banegas, executive director of 50-year-old advocacy organization El Concilio, which has organized the parade since its inception in 1963.
The city did grant a permit for the parade, but there were worries about community spread at the host of unofficial events that are usually held at the parade’s end.
“In joint discussions with city health officials and the police department,” Banegas explained, “we were informed that when the parade doesn’t happen, people don’t congregate together. So we decided it was in our best interest not to do something so that it would directly impact what happens in North Philadelphia.”
Some gatherings happened anyway, like Pa. Rep. Angel Cruz’s Festival Ell Coqui. That’s not affiliated with Concillo, Banegas said, but his organization did host a weekend “Stroll the Harbor” event on the Delaware River waterfront.
Public sentiment about the parade’s cancellation was mixed. Many said that although they understand the threat of COVID to the city’s Latino community, which has worked overtime to boost vaccination rates, there’s still lingering disappointment.
“Puerto Ricans are always showing their flags and letting people know they’re Puerto Rican,” said Pabon, the Temple senior. “So it’s to have other people like us around, and have a day to just celebrate being us.”
Especially in the second half of the 20th century, people of Puerto Rican heritage played a large role in the development of Philadelphia, creating mutual aid networks, turning Lehigh Avenue into a business corridor, and helping power overall industrialization.
Residents said events like the parade enable Boricuas to celebrate their shared experience — and educate the rest of the city on the culture.
“The parade is informative. It’s easier for people to witness our culture firsthand than read about it,” said Roberto Rios, an organizer with construction workers union District Council No. 21, who said he’s been going to the parade since he was a kid. “I like the ripple effect that happens there, where older folks show up and relay our history to the younger generation so that they can pass it on to their children.”
Some of those stories and traditions were shared despite the parade’s absence.
The Festival El Coqui block party brought performances from meringue band Grupo Manía and house band TKA to Lehigh Avenue, while Snipes and Mural Arts sponsored the 4th Annual Giveback Puerto Rico fundraiser at Sunflower Philly, with salsa music and painting workshops.
About 5,000 people came to Spruce Street Harbor Park for Concilio’s Stroll the Harbor, according to Concilio projections, down from 15,000 a day in 2019 — but about the same number as usually attend the Parkway parade in person.
Compared to the usual Hispanic Fiesta at Penn’s Landing, the new event is smaller, with an emphasis on community outreach. Along with games and giveaways, it featured two dozen neighborhood partners and nonprofits handing out materials on job fairs, immigration assistance, and educational support.
“It’s important for us to be present and help support our communities,” said Lamya Broussard, vice president of operations for Caribbean Community in Philadelphia, a nonprofit that connects the city’s Caribbean diaspora with social services.
The group was handing out goodie bags filled with stress balls, Puerto Rican flags, and flyers explaining their services. “It’s very important to spread awareness of our cultures,”‘ Bourssard said. “Some people may not even realize Puerto Rico is part of the Caribbean,”
Spreading that solidarity and connectedness was part of the goal, said Concilio director Banegas.
“We just wanted to keep something going this year so that people don’t lose sight of what we put together,” Banegas said. “That way, [we can] come back bigger and stronger in 2022.”