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Fiesta on Fifth Avenue: Sunset Park’s Puerto Rican Day Parade celebrates culture and remembers lives lost in Hurricane Maria

Puerto Rican flags fly down the street.
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It was a fiesta on Fifth Avenue!

Folk dancers, musicians, and artists strutted through Sunset Park on June 9 for the 5th annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, which saw Puerto Rican flags dangling from car windows and participants who flaunted their costumes while an estimated 12,000 attendees cheered on the sidelines, donning the patriotic red, white, and blue.

“It was a wonderful event,” said Carmen Dingue, who has attended the parade since its inaugural year. This year, Dingue was honored for her work in Sunset Park, where she’s involved in Center for Family Life, a social services non-profit.

El Grito, a community organization based in Sunset Park, began the parade in 2014 as a response to the growing commercialism of the Manhattan Puerto Rican Day Parade and the police aggression attendees witnessed there. El Grito organizers framed the Sunset Park event as an “after parade” for locals coming home from the Manhattan festivities.

Free of corporate floats, the Sunset Park parade kept it simple: a group of musicians led the precession drumming traditional Puerto Rican rhythms while participants behind them sang and danced.

“It was great. It’s so much better that it’s official now,” said Lisa, who has attended the parade since she was in high school. This year, she went with her son, Ethan. “I go every year to try to keep the culture and show the kids.”

Mixed with lighthearted celebration were speeches by activist groups, such as Cancel the Debt, which advocates for the forgiveness of Puerto Rico’s $72 million deficit. Several other grassroots organizations that support LGBT rights, Puerto Rico’s independence, and anti-rezoning efforts in Sunset Park helped spice up the festivities.

But as the parade wound down, the mood turned somber. At the end of the precession, paradegoers arrived at an altar in Sunset Park commemorating the 4,645 people who died in Hurricane Maria in 2017.

“The parade is about celebrating our culture and our pride, but it’s also to remember those who came before us,” said the altar’s artist, Adrián Viajero Román. “[The vigil] is to balance our mind state and our energy.”

As the sun set, attendees “lit” thousands of electric candles to remember each victim of the hurricane. Some mourners brought photos of their loved ones that they propped up on the altar beside Román’s photos of Puerto Rico.

“It’s like losing a family member,” Román said about his decision to build the altar. “You celebrate their life, but you also do something to remember them always.”

Reach reporter Rose Adams at radams@schnepsmedia.com or by calling (718) 260–8306.
Updated 9:05 am, June 11, 2019
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