Revived parade to celebrate Hispanic roots

Residents and children take in the Puerto Rican/Hispanic

Residents and children take in the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Day Parade in Brentwood. (June 5, 2011) (Credit: Kevin P Coughlin)

The near-death of Brentwood's Puerto-Rican/Hispanic Day Parade could be a very good thing.

After more than four decades celebrating the community's deep Latino roots, there's a renewed opportunity, under the leadership of the new organizers, Teatro Yerbabruja, for the rest of the region to join in.

A revived and -- down the line -- expanded parade and Hispanic cultural festival could spotlight an oft-ignored part of Long Island history.

At one time, Brentwood was home to the second largest settlement of Puerto Ricans -- the first was in New York City -- on the U.S. mainland. Families were attracted by plentiful land and good jobs in Suffolk County.

During the 1940s, for example, a merchant mariner named Francisco Ortiz decided to make the trek after reading about Brentwood in a Spanish-language newspaper.

"They used to run ads about Brentwood," Ortiz's granddaughter, Renee Ortiz, said Monday. "He read about how he could buy an acre of land and how each lot was surrounded by woods and came with a chicken coop."

Her grandfather, who was away at sea for months at a time, had a house built on Wilson Street for his family.

It was -- as evidenced by a date handwritten in cement outside -- completed in 1950. For a time, Ortiz's closest neighbors were more than a mile away.

That would change, quickly, as other Puerto Rican families moved in, lured by ample jobs at the old Pilgrim State Hospital and Entenmann's, which, in 1961, expanded its nearby Bay Shore bakery into the largest such facility in the country.

"Those were good jobs," said Renee Ortiz, whose uncles worked at Pilgrim and who now lives in Central Islip. "And at the hospital, those were state jobs with pensions."

Sergio Colon, 74, a poet and president of the local senior citizens club, moved from Brooklyn to Brentwood in the 1973.

"I would say that 90 percent of the businesses were Puerto Rican back then and everybody else was 10 percent," he said.

"Now, it's the opposite, Puerto Ricans being 10 percent and others, like Colombians, Salvadorans, being the 90 percent," he said. "They followed our footsteps, but we are all working together to make this a good place."

This year's revived parade -- to be held July 22 -- aims to spotlight the community's roots by honoring the Puerto Rican pioneers who -- like returning World War II soldiers in Levittown -- changed the local landscape.

Assemb. Phil Ramos (D-Central Islip) is Puerto Rican; so is Margarita Espada, Brentwood-based Teatro's executive and artistic director. They were joined at a news conference Monday by a diverse coalition of Brentwood residents.

Teatro has signed on to run the parade for five years. Organizers also are considering adding a festival -- akin, perhaps, to Oyster Bay's wildly successful Oyster Festival -- in the future to help build a sustained source of revenue for the event.

"We want to add some surprises," Espada said. "We want to open up, to showcase Brentwood and Long Island's diversity."

But first, the new organizers have to raise money from corporate and private donations.

The goal is an ambitious $50,000 in 30 days.