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Chasing Last Year's Shadow From A Coming Parade


May 31, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

[PHOTO: Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times]

Spectators put their pride on display during last year's Puerto Rican Day parade. But because of violence after the march ended, there will be additional security this year.

Organizers could not have asked for a more momentous National Puerto Rican Day Parade. It will open with an appearance by the first female governor of Puerto Rico, Sila M. Calderón, followed by Miss Universe, Denise M. Quiñones, and the new World Boxing Association heavyweight champion, John Ruiz. A candidate with a shot at becoming New York's first Hispanic mayor, Fernando Ferrer, will also be there.

The concern over the Navy's bombing exercises on the island of Vieques is also expected to give marchers a heightened sense of solidarity. Puerto Ricans this year can even brag about the first native to be put on a path to sainthood – Carlos M. Rodriguez, a layman who was beatified last April and who will have his own parade contingent.

Yet less than two weeks before participants make their way up Fifth Avenue on June 10, about a quarter of the more than 100 sponsors of last year's parade have yet to renew their sponsorship – which could cost the parade $150,000 for other activities. Media interest is higher than usual, but most of that interest is about security.

And organizers are still more focused on damage control from last year than promotion for an event that is, at heart, a celebration of heritage. The incongruity reflects the lasting effect of the sexual assaults on women in Central Park following the parade last year, an episode that embarrassed and infuriated participants and that prompted this year's surveillance of the parade by officers in helicopters and on rooftops.

Ralph Morales, the vice president of the Puerto Rican Day parade, says he is frequently asked what happened last year.

PHOTO: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Ralph Morales, the parade's vice president, has been busy cleaning up the public relations mess. "No doubt it has had a very negative impact," he said. "The question always comes up – `What happened last year?' "

Because of last year's violence, Mr. Morales said, more private security officers and parade monitors will be deployed along the 42-block route this year. While Vieques is a volatile issue that has led to acts of civil disobedience against the Navy and the arrest of protesters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and three Bronx political leaders who are still in jail, parade organizers said they were not concerned about any Vieques- related unrest during the parade.

Maria Roman, the parade's president, said that Vieques supporters will have their own parade contingent, as they did last year, and that this year all parade participants are being urged to wear a white ribbon in support of "peace for Vieques."

Police officials, who came under criticism for inaction during the Central Park attacks and disciplined a dozen officers, said they had added helicopters and rooftop observation posts to their security measures for this and other large events to more quickly detect any suspicious movement by groups of people. They said they had also combined the two command posts with jurisdiction over the parade route into one, to act more efficiently in case of trouble.

Thomas Antenen, the Police Department's deputy commissioner for public information, said the parade was no more problematic than other large parades and that its organizers had worked "very well" with the police in the past.

Parade officials have repeatedly stressed that last year's attacks happened after the parade ended – although they involved some spectators. Nevertheless, the spectacle of roving groups of men dousing women with beer while ripping off their clothes and groping them tarnished the parade itself. Sixteen men pleaded guilty in the attacks and two others were convicted after trial, receiving sentences from community service to up to five years in prison.

Parade organizers said that most of the sponsors who had backed out alluded to the slower economy. But one parade official said last year's incident kept away "possible" sponsors, and other organizers said it dissuaded at least one, Toys "R" Us, from participating again this year. A spokeswoman for the toymaker said no decision had yet been made.

Longtime sponsors like Goya Foods, the Ford Motor Company and The Daily News have remained. "In spite of what happened, the majority of people that go to that parade behave themselves in a proper manner," said Rafael Toro, a spokesman for Goya, a sponsor since the parade's inception in 1958.

And despite last year's violence, parade officials said they were confident that they would draw at least the usual crowd of about two million.

The parade has grown into one of New York City's largest public events, drawing participants from more than 30 states, spawning smaller parades in other American cities and uniting large numbers of Puerto Rican residents with compatriots who migrated to the United States. Longtime participants include the Asociacion de Arroyanos Ausentes, a group of compatriots from Arroyo, a tiny coastal town in southeastern Puerto Rico. The group invites a delegation of dozens of people, including the town's mayor,to march with them every year. "It's an occasion when people who have not seen each other in many years meet again," said Ramon Ortiz, the group's president.

Over the years the parade, which is broadcast by NBC, has drawn ethnically diverse crowds and an ever- expanding roster of artists, athletes and other personalities – this year's hot celebrity is singer Marc Anthony – who underscore the coming of age of the Hispanic population in this country.

"We don't have two million Puerto Ricans in the city of New York," said Carlos Velazquez, the parade's producer. "You'll see Dominican faces, Mexican faces, African-American faces."

Over time, the parade has come under criticism for growing too commercial, adding more and more advertisers' floats. It once also came under the scrutiny of the state attorney general's office for questionable financial practices. A court order barred its top official, Ramon S. Velez, from leading the nonprofit parade organization for several years. (Parade officials reported net assets of $730,000 last year.) Among its other activities, the parade sponsors scholarships and a pageant.

And before last year's outbreak of violence, there had been other problems. In 1995, more than 130 people were arrested in Brooklyn for, according to the police, drinking, honking horns and other disorderly conduct after leaving the parade.

But organizers call the Central Park attacks their worst crisis.

Jimmy Ruiz, 17, a dancer in the parade last year, remembers reaching Midtown Manhattan from the Bronx in a subway car packed with parade revelers, and then proceeding to salsa-step his way up Fifth Avenue while screaming throngs cheered him on. But he said his elation vanished when he heard news of the attacks that night. "I was kind of devastated," said Mr. Ruiz, a second- generation New Yorker. "We took so much time to all get united for the parade and then people go and do something like that."

Earlier this year, parade officials complained to NBC about an episode of the show "Law & Order" that depicted a rampage by a Hispanic mob on the day of a parade in which women were molested and one was killed. (In last year's attacks, no one died and not all of those indicted were Latinos.)

The full extent of the fallout from last year's violence may not be known until the day of the parade, but Ms. Roman, the parade president, said she expected an even larger turnout than last year because many Puerto Ricans feel they should make a show of force after all the negative publicity.

Many longtime participants, including public officials, will be back this year. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is scheduled to march and also welcome visiting mayors and legislators from Puerto Rico at a reception at Gracie Mansion. Gov. George E. Pataki and many candidates for public office are also expected to participate.

Jimmy Ruiz is planning to march again, and his mother, Valerie Ruiz, who has been recruited to the detail assigned to checking tickets at seating areas, said she anticipated the same thrill the parade had always produced. "It's just the best thing in the world to look up Fifth Avenue and see my people having a good time," she said. "It's very hard to explain how you feel. For me, it's the most beautiful day in New York."

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