This story was reported by Michael O’Keeffe, Laura Figueroa, Ivan Pereira and Alison Fox. It was written by O’Keeffe.
Goodbye, controversy. Hello, community and culture.
Many of the revelers who lined up Sunday along the route of the 60th annual Puerto Rican Day Parade said they were more interested in celebrating their heritage and partying with family and friends than continuing the fierce debate over Oscar López Rivera, the former leader of an independence group behind a series of bombings in the 1970s and ’80s who was named a “National Freedom Hero” by the event’s organizers.
The controversy over Rivera, which sparked a boycott by corporate sponsors — including Coca-Cola and JetBlue — elected officials and police groups, did nothing to dampen the Puerto Rican pride that drives the parade, one of the largest annual events in New York. People waving Puerto Rican flags turned midtown Manhattan into a sea of red, white and blue. They cheered as colorful floats, festive bands and an assortment of public officials, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, marched uptown along Fifth Avenue. They blew whistles, banged drums and chanted “Puerto Rico.”
“It’s all about family,” said Emily Calderon, 27, of Manhattan. “It’s still as lovely and positive as every year.”
Organizers said more than 100,000 people would march in the parade, and they estimated 1.5 million would line the route from East 44th Street to East 79th Street.
Police reported no arrests or major incidents at the parade.
“I’m Puerto Rican, and it is always an honor to come out here,” said Rebecca Cruz, 38, of Harlem.
The celebration had become enmeshed in controversy in recent weeks after the organizing committee announced it would honor Rivera, the Puerto Rican separatist who was accused of transporting weapons and explosives, and served 35 years in a federal prison for seditious conspiracy charges.
Rivera, 74, got out of prison last month after President Barack Obama commuted his sentence in January.
Rivera defused some of the parade tensions last week saying he would not accept the title of “National Freedom Hero” and would instead march as a “humble Puerto Rican and grandfather.” He waved a Puerto Rican flag and greeted well-wishers as he rode on a float near the front of the parade while supporters carried signs that said “Viva Oscar López Rivera.”
“This is a day of unity, of celebration, not controversy which is being made up by the press,” said New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Rivera supporter. “There are a lot of people that are proud, that are not allowing corporate interests to dictate what they do on this day.”
De Blasio, who promised to march in the parade despite the controversy but later said he would not have participated if Rivera had remained an honoree, joined the parade route shortly after noon, surrounded by dozens of supporters waving Puerto Rican flags. He left the parade route at East 75th Street, four blocks short of its endpoint, without speaking to reporters.
The debate over Rivera was a distraction from Puerto Rico’s financial crisis, said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, the president of the New York State Nurses Association who led 50 union members as they marched uptown.
“What is happening this year in the culture and history of Puerto Rico is a disaster,” she said. “Hospitals are closing, schools are closing, people are leaving the island in huge numbers.”
Puerto Ricans went to the polls Sunday to participate in a nonbinding referendum that asked voters if they wished to remain a U.S. territory or become an independent nation or a state.
Results showed overwhelming support for statehood with nearly half a million votes cast. Voter turnout was just 23 percent with roughly 2.2 million registered voters, The Associated Press reported.
Brittany Diaz, 20, of Brooklyn said at the parade that she wants the island to become a state.
“There’s already so many Puerto Rican people here,” she said. “There is so much back and forth already. We should become a state.
“I wanted to come to the parade because I wanted to celebrate my culture with people who feel the same way,” said Diaz, who wore an ankle-length Puerto Rico flag dress. “All we want to do is celebrate our culture and have fun.”