Why the Puerto Rican Day Parade Matters This Summer More Than Ever

New York City's annual Puerto Rican Day Parade is almost upon us, and it's incredible that almost seven decades have passed since the parade's inception. But it's also hard for me to imagine a time without it — the Puerto Rican community's contributions to New York are that intrinsic. In every neighborhood, in every barrio, on every block in this city of 18 million people, if you look hard enough, you'll see our influence — from the corner bodegas to the salsa blaring from passing cars to the flags hanging from power lines or draped from windows. We're a prideful people, and the parade celebrates that pride.

But I have to be honest: I can count on one hand the amount of times I've actually attended the parade, which falls on Puerto Rican weekend. That doesn't mean the parade has become less important to me. On the contrary, I think the Puerto Rican Day Parade might just be more meaningful than ever — for me and most Boricuas.

The Puerto Rican parade has always been political in nature. In fact, it originated with a different parade altogether, the Hispanic Day Parade. However, in 1958, buoyed by the waves of Puerto Rican immigration to New York City and the burgeoning desire among the community to have the unique aspects of their culture represented and celebrated, the Puerto Rican Day Parade was born. The impact of this cannot be understated. After the collapse of the island's agricultural infrastructure in the aftermath of World War II, many Boricuas were forced to leave the island in search of employment and a better life. Instead, they found themselves crammed into NYC tenement apartments in crime-addled neighborhoods where poverty abounded. The parade not only gave the community an opportunity to focus on the positive and inspiring aspects of Puerto Rican culture, but it also forced city officials to acknowledge the rapidly growing social and political power of Puerto Ricans.

My grandparents were a part of that influx. My mother still remembers how the elders would get the kids up at the crack of dawn on that second Sunday in June to make the trip over to Fifth Avenue. They would line up along the curb with pots of food and snacks and wait hours for the parade to begin. It was that important to Puerto Rican communities living in NYC.

But for me, the parade has never been the main event, at least not the Fifth Avenue one. Instead, I have always viewed it as a fixed center that takes place every second weekend of June, from which all kinds of events and celebrations of Puerto Rican culture radiate. There's my personal favorite, the festival on 116th, the Saturday before the parade, where the streets are closed to traffic and pedestrians can take in the sounds, smells, and tastes that are unique to the island, complete with local Boricuas putting on impromptu stoop-side jam sessions. Then, of course, there's the club scene, where NYC-based artists and island-bred performers get a chance to rock stages across the five boroughs.

As a kid, the promise of all these options had me looking forward to Puerto Rican weekend all year round. I remember going to the Fifth Avenue parade with cousins, decked out in flags and bandanas — one cousin even used markers to turn a plain white tank into a celebration of our pride. As I got older, the parade on Knickerbocker Avenue in Bushwick became my preferred destination. You could usually catch me standing on the corner of Bleecker Street in a pair of limited-edition Air Force 1s that featured the Puerto Rican flag, an alcapurria from La Isla Cuchifrito in hand. Meanwhile, back in the apartment, my parents would have the main parade playing on the TV while they ate breakfast, sipped coffee, and beamed with pride. From the streets below, flags mounted on car antennas would wave proudly in the breeze, and car horns would blare in acknowledgment as cries of "Boricua" rose high above the traffic. This was the real main event, the energy reverberating on every city corner. If you didn't go to the parade — and even if you didn't watch it on TV — the parade would find you. You would know that you were a part of something so much bigger — that even if you didn't speak Spanish, even if you didn't dance salsa, you were still a part of a people that had crossed oceans to find a better life and, through the merit of their culture, enriched the lives and the city around them.

But as time passed, the number of Puerto Rican flags in my neighborhood began to dwindle. The noise that once accompanied our raucous celebrations of Puerto Rican pride became fainter, the parties fewer and further between. The cement stoops that had once been host to our barbecues became condos, silent towers of glass and steel that no longer told our story. The city even tried to remove the "Avenue of Puerto Rico" sign that has proudly hung on Graham Avenue in Brooklyn for decades. This is the aftermath of gentrification, which is all too often marketed under the banner of urban renewal to divert attention away from the true displacement and cultural erosion that are its byproducts. It's also not a new phenomenon. The San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan once gave rise to a hotbed of Black and Puerto Rican talent, including Thelonious Monk and Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Today, the neighborhood is no more. Instead, we call it Lincoln Center.

So, as rents rise and more Puerto Ricans pack up and move away, the Puerto Rican Day Parade and the many accompanying celebrations serve as an important reminder — not only of how far we've come and what we've achieved, but that we're still here. Sure, maybe there aren't as many of us. But our voices are still powerful when raised in unison. And they don't get any louder than during that second weekend in June when we get to remind the world of everything our little island has done, pa' que tú lo sepa.

Miguel Machado is a journalist with expertise in the intersection of Latine identity and culture. He does everything from exclusive interviews with Latin music artists to opinion pieces on issues that are relevant to the community, personal essays tied to his Latinidad, and thought pieces and features relating to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican culture.