For Puerto Ricans, a Parade of Questions
The Puerto Rican Day Parade has grown into a star-studded televised extravaganza in the heart of Manhattan. Photo by Eric Thayer for The New York Times
By WINNIE HU
The New York Times
June 8, 2013
In the 1950s, before they became a prominent part of New York City’s tapestry, Puerto Ricans often found themselves unwelcome as they tried to carve out a place for themselves: sometimes beaten by their neighbors, given the lowest-paying jobs and even at times disenfranchised from voting by English-only literacy tests.
So, in 1958, Puerto Rican leaders decided to hold a modest parade where they could march arm in arm with pride through the heart of Manhattan. Fathers taught their children about their roots by pointing to floats dedicated to Puerto Rican towns known for coffee beans, bananas or sugar cane. Mothers tapped their feet to the African-inspired drum music that evoked memories of growing up on the island.
Today, the parade is a star-studded televised extravaganza, with 80,000 marchers, 2 million spectators and a fleet of corporate sponsors. This Sunday, Chita Rivera will be the grand marshal leading the parade down Fifth Avenue.
But even as the National Puerto Rican Day Parade has become one of the nation’s largest and best-known ethnic celebrations, its organizers have come under scrutiny over how they manage the event and spend the money it generates, some of which is supposed to finance scholarships for children of Puerto Rican heritage.
More broadly, many Puerto Ricans complain that the parade has become an embarrassing spectacle that encourages bad behavior, gives their culture a black eye and is as much a marketing opportunity for big corporations as it is a celebration of what they have achieved.
“It hurts me in my heart when I see this parade,” said Ildefonso Rivera, 57, a carpenter who as a boy used to wait by the curb with his father to watch the floats. “I don’t see the floats with our culture. I see the floats for Coors. Today, it’s just one big commercial.”
Such criticisms intensified recently when elected officials and activists protested a commemorative Coors Light beer can for the parade that included the Puerto Rican flag and a modified version of the parade’s logo, saying it was insulting and sent the wrong message when the theme this year was dedicated to health. The can is no longer being distributed, but the furor aggravated tensions between many Puerto Rican leaders and elected officials and the parade’s organizer, National Puerto Rican Day Parade Inc., a nonprofit organization overseen by a volunteer board.
Despite highly visible sponsorships by MillerCoors, Goya Foods and others, the parade and its related activities, including a gala banquet and a pageant, have operated at a loss every year since at least 2005, tax filings show. The parade’s organization reported that it raised a total of about $460,000 in revenues in 2012, but spent over $620,000 on the parade and related activities, leaving a deficit of about $159,000.
Eric T. Schneiderman, the state’s attorney general, who has legal oversight of nonprofit organizations, is investigating the parade’s financial dealings and has raised questions about how organizers are protecting the parade’s reputation. Elected officials and activists rail about what they call missteps and a lack of accountability.
“They’re treating the parade like their own banana republic,” said Gerson Borrero, 62, a columnist for El Diario. “The last thing on their mind is to instill pride. In fact, they have shamed us.”
But Madelyn Lugo, chairwoman of the parade since 2006, defended the organization’s practices, saying critics are misinformed. As the parade has grown into a national event, so have expenses, she said. In 2012, expenses included broadcasting costs for the parade ($103,875); insurance ($43,232); sound, music and lights ($9,000); and portable toilets ($1,600).
At the same time, Ms. Lugo said, corporate sponsorships have dried up in tough economic times, falling by more than half to $300,000 in 2012, down from $800,000 a decade ago. Donations by community groups alone, she said, would not cover the parade’s expenses, which include many free activities. “We’re spending what’s necessary to do what we need,” she said. “We’re giving back to the community.”
Despite the deficit, Ms. Lugo said the parade had continued to raise at least $10,000 to $20,000 every year for scholarships from sponsors, including MillerCoors, who make donations to students on the parade’s behalf, or through the Diversity Foundation, a program started by the parade’s business and marketing agent, Carlos Velasquez. This year, the foundation helped Hostos Community College in the Bronx award $11,500 in scholarships to 23 students.
The parade’s finances have also been called into question. They were once controlled by Ramon S. Velez, who grew wealthy running a network of social services in the South Bronx that was repeatedly investigated and that earned him the title of “poverty pimp” from Edward I. Koch.
In 1978, a court barred Mr. Velez from serving on the parade’s sponsoring committee and handling its finances, but he was later permitted to return to the parade after claims against him were dismissed.
Joaquin Del Rio, a journalist and one of the parade’s founders, said Mr. Velez sought to find ways to profit from the parade that tarnished its spirit. “I am angry because this is not what we created,” he said. “We created an organization to promote the positive things of our community and culture. Now everything is business.”
Though Mr. Velez died in 2008, he is honored with a banner hanging on the wall of the parade’s office in the Bronx, and many of the people he mentored and worked with, including Ms. Lugo, continue to run the parade.
Mr. Velasquez, who has also been involved with the parade for decades, has come under criticism because his marketing contract allows his company to keep 27 percent to 35 percent of the money that he raises for the parade, according to a copy of the contract. In 2012, even as the parade recorded an overall loss, Mr. Velasquez’s company was owed $103,108, tax filings show. He did not return phone calls.
Ms. Lugo said other marketing companies requested a 50 percent commission. She said that she would like to give more scholarship money if the parade’s finances improved and that expenses were being reduced.
Some parade-goers said the criticisms were overblown.
Venus Perez, 35, a stay-at-home mother, said the celebrities and the big floats added glamour to the parade. “I love the parade,” she said. “It’s always going to be what it is. People need to stop judging it.”
But April Andino, 24, a waitress, stopped going to the parade, saying she was bored with the corporate displays and an overly rowdy crowd. “There’s no excitement anymore,” she said. “And there’s a lot of fighting and people getting drunk. Nobody wants to see that.”