The Puerto Rican Day Parade That Almost Didn't Happen

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The story of how Sunday's National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York — one of the largest outdoor events in the country, with over 10,000 scheduled marchers and more than a million spectators — almost didn't take place this year can be traced back to a beer can.

In May 2013, Lucky Rivera, the leader of Boricuas for a Positive Image — a group formed in 1998 after the controversy generated by an infamous Seinfeld episode — became furious after seeing a can of Coors Light emblazoned with the Puerto Rican flag with the blessing of parade organizers. It was the final straw for those who lamented the over-commercialization of what was supposed to be a community event. Two years before that, MillerCoors, a corporate sponsor of the Parade, got in trouble for Parade-related ads that read "EMBORÍCUATE" — a slogan that was supposed to boost Boricua pride, but to many it sounded suspiciously similar to "emborráchate"-- get drunk.

The beer can controversy prompted activists to look into the finances of the Parade Board and their marketing agent and fundraiser, G.A.L.O.S. Corporation. This, in turn, prompted a full investigation by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, which eventually led to the dismantlement of the Board.

A new board, chaired by former New York Secretary of State Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, took over, and assurances were given that the Parade would go on as planned. And today, that promise will be kept and the floats will march along Manhattan's Fifth Avenue for the 57th annual edition of the parade.

The reorganization of the Parade Board means this year's event is more politically-focused and less commercially-focused now than it has been in recent years. Parade organizers are calling for the release of Óscar López Rivera, who has spent more than 32 years in prison for seditious conspiracy. He was involved with a paramilitary group that violently sought the independence of Puerto Rico.

In addition, the Parade is honoring the 65th Infantry Regiment. "The Borinqueneers" are a regiment composed mostly of Puerto Rican volunteers who have fought in several wars for the United States Army. The bill granting them the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor is expected to be signed by President Barack Obama later this week.

The Parade's recent shakeup and new focus reflects the changes and challenges that a powerful community, like that of Puerto Ricans in New York City, faces when it enters a new stage of maturity. A time in which its once-dominant position in the Latino world of New York has faded due to a number of factors: the out-migration of Puerto Ricans in New York to states like Pennsylvania, the exodus of Puerto Ricans on the island to Central Florida rather than New York and the loss of influence in New York to newer waves of Latinos such as immigrants arriving from the Dominican Republic.

This is a moment in which the meaning of proclaiming your Boricua pride at the top of your lungs along a Puerto-Rican flag-covered Fifth Avenue is changing.

The feeling of change and uncertainty was probably best expressed by Calle 13 singer, Residente. He is this year's Parade King (Rosie Perez is the Queen).

"When you hear a Puerto Rican saying, 'Yo soy Boricua pa' que tú lo sepas,' ('I'm Boricua, just so you know'), it has to do with that low self-esteem of being a colony, something no other Latin American country experiences," the outspoken singer said recently when asked about the high levels of patriotic fervor associated with the event. "It doesn't come from saying that we are better than the rest, but from a more vulnerable and a more beautiful side of us. It's a reaffirmation that your nervous system needs — said with pride, but also with a little bit of fear of losing that identity."

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