December 5, 2023

The Puerto Rican Day Parade is the largest ethnic parade in the United States. Hence the importance of the event. Hence further the reason so many unfortunately look to politicize and use the parade as a means to serve – for better or worse – their own agendas. Perhaps it’s also the reason why drama has plagued the event in some form or fashion over the years.  The latest iteration? In case you haven’t heard, the event organizers decided to honor the recently pardoned Oscar López Rivera as the parade’s first ever “National Freedom Hero”. The plan was to have López Rivera march at the front of the parade on June 11th. However, the decision was met with backlash from corporate sponsors, politicians and even members of the Puerto Rican community. Yet, as with any crisis there is bad, good and the bigger picture to be mindful of.

The Bad

In his column for the New York Daily News Juan Gonzalez reported that after the decision to honor Lopez was announced, “a boycott campaign was quietly organized by a right-wing conservative group in Washington, D.C., the Media Research Center, that receives major funding from donors close to both President Trump and to Breitbart News.”

Regardless of whether a campaign was organized or not, what is undeniable is that one by one corporate sponsors of the parade pulled out, some were forthright in their decision, others cloaked it in pretext. Among them Coca-Cola, JetBlue and Goya Foods. It’s always troubling when those who provide resources for the parade withdraw such support. The second wave, seemed to be the politicians. New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York City Police Commissioner, James O’ Neil and Senator Chuck Schumer were among the noteworthy politicians that announced they would not participate citing the López Rivera honor as their reason. Not a terrible surprise as controversy doesn’t mix well with re-election of politicians. However, the trifecta came in the form of several Latino police organizations. The latter being the most troubling, as given cultural ties and shared experience one would think such groups would have a better perspective. However, this segues into…

The Good

While there have certainly been detractors, López Rivera has also received his fare share of support from officials, celebrities and dignitaries. At the time of his sentence being commuted by President Obama, it was noted that Pope Francis had made efforts through diplomatic channels to lobby for López Rivera’s release. Arch Bishop Desmond TuTu most recently released a statement in support of López Rivera’s participation in the parade. TuTu in relevant part noted that:

“The huge, New York-based Parade, which coincides with Oscar Lopez Rivera’s first visit to that city, is an annual celebration—and Puerto Ricans themselves must be able to decide without outside intervention who they want to honor. Had South Africans and people of the African diaspora allowed others to determine who we would embrace, Mandela would still be in prison and have been stripped of the stature we gave him and that he deserved.”

Amidst all the uproar López Rivera has taken the high ground. Deciding to decline the honor and instead bequeath it to the community he so dearly loves and fought for. In a recent op-ed for the New York Daily News the man at the center of the controversy stated “the honor should not be for me; it should be bestowed on our pioneers who came to the United States and opened doors,” Lopez Rivera wrote. “It should go for activists and elected officials who fight for justice and a fair society. It should go to the many companies that though not showing a float on June 11th have continued to support our future through scholarship funds.” Which is the perfect segue into…

The Bigger Picture

The bigger question to ask is, in a community both at home and abroad which faces turmoil not seen in decades, why divide ourselves even further? Why not stand united on this day, irrespective of our differences on a particular issue. A sentiment echoed by the National Puerto Rican Day Parade Committee in their statement on the matter, “[w]hile the diversity within our community represents a wide array of perspectives and opinions, this is a time for solidarity and unity – not for factions and division – given the grave situation in Puerto Rico. In unity, we will find the strength we need to move forward. It was the unity of voices that led to Oscar López Rivera’s commutation, and we will need even more voices during this debt crisis. This is a time to come together, to recognize and transcend our differences and obstacles.”

Coincidentally, the day of this year’s parade is also the same day that a referendum on the political status of Puerto Rico will be held in Puerto Rico. Which begs the question, or rather mantra, united we stand, divided we will fall.

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