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A Day To Celebrate

Many in Central Florida's burgeoning Puerto Rican community turned out to parade and party Sunday

By Melissa Harris | Sentinel Staff Writer

October 6, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 

Flag day.


Being in the majority did wonders for Jerry Diaz's vocal chords.

Once a resident of the heavily Cuban Miami area, he no longer needed to scream, "The few, the proud, the Puerto Rican," at Sunday's Puerto Rican Parade of Central Florida.

With 15,000 of his fellow boricuas around him, Diaz showed off his salsa style without a partner, giddy about his new home of only two months.

Members of the area's growing Puerto Rican community lined Robinson Street from Mills to Bumby avenues for food, dancing and music.

"You know, Puerto Ricans have a knack for making a good party," said Diaz, 39, of Orlando.

Dance the plena and bomba, they did.

Some didn't even require music, just a beat created from sticks.

Petite beauty queens, such as Little Miss Florida Latina, waved from red, blue and white floats. Older pageant participants added some Vegas-style feathers to their sequined gowns.

Diovanni Nieves, 18, led his popular dance group, Sabor Latino, in a homage to the late pop star Celia Cruz.

Wearing airbrushed T-shirts bearing the Queen of Salsa's name, the 10-person group performed a mix of salsa and hip-hop moves.

Six mayors from the island joined a host of local politicians, including U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Chairman Rich Crotty, who promoted a half-cent sales-tax increase for better roads.

Six marching bands from Puerto Rico joined the 51 other parade entries.

"We don't have football in Puerto Rico, so the marching bands are for the parades," said Jose Rivera, 40, of Orlando, who brought along his two daughters.

The annual parade falls in the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month, which began Sept. 15 and runs until Oct. 15.

"This is something Central and South Americans and also English-speaking Americans can be proud of," said Juan Diaz, an event organizer. "We're calling for everyone to unite."

Organizers say the parade grows every year with the burgeoning Puerto Rican population.

Puerto Ricans make up half of the region's 323,000 Hispanics, according to 2000 census data.

The local event is an offshoot of the much larger parade that started in New York City a generation ago.

Hector DeJesus, an Orlando retiree, said the New York version featured more A-list celebrities, but an "army of cops" always surrounded them.

On Sunday, his wife was able to walk right up to Grand Marshal Adamari Lopez, of soap opera fame, and snap a photo.

DeJesus, 65, said he was shocked to discover the size of Central Florida's Puerto Rican population.

"I had no idea how big it was," he said. "It's becoming the sixth borough of New York City."

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