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South Florida Sun-Sentinel

A Piece Of Puerto Rico

By Milton D. Carrero Galarza

October 26, 2003
Copyright ©2003
South Florida Sun-Sentinel All rights reserved.

The fiestas patronales made such an impression on Mennette Colón as a child that she can close her eyes and still see the festivities play out in her mind as if it were a movie.

"For, me the fiestas patronales means party, unity, culture, music and family," she said. "The island."

Colón, who now lives west of Boca Raton, lived in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, for only a year, but she considers herself Puerto Rican.

"We grew up with the culture at home," she said. "The family unity, love for the island, the culture that never ends."

Colón was happy to hear that the fiestas patronales were going beyond the island's 78 towns to be celebrated in Broward County. She was even more excited to hear that the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce plans to bring the celebration to Palm Beach County in April next year. A specific date and location have yet to be announced.

Puerto Ricans on the island each year long for the time of their town's fiestas patronales. Those who live in the United States cherish the memories of the traditional celebrations with stirring nostalgia. Puerto Ricans who live here are instituting a new tradition in their home away from home.

The fiestas patronales, or celebrations to the patron saint, historically have been the most important event that towns on the island celebrate each year. It's the time for children to enjoy the rides, for adults to bet on the games and for the audience to dance to the music of Puerto Rico's most popular bands.

[On] Nov. 2, Puerto Ricans in Broward…celebrate[d] the third annual Fiestas Patronales Business to Business Trade Show.

South Florida Puerto Ricans…gather[ed] at Boomers! entertainment park in Dania Beach to replicate what they remember from their island celebrations. The festivities… include[d] tributes to legendary singers Ismael Rivera and Hector Lavoe, and La Lupe, as well as paying homage to Orlando Cepeda, the second Puerto Rican player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, along with Roberto Clemente.

The event…feature[d] well-known local bands, as well as prominent Puerto Rican performers such as salsa stars Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. In addition to carnival rides, organizers showcase[d] 60 businesses, authentic Puerto Rican food and 19 artisans from the island.

"I want everybody to come in and say that they celebrated a fiestas patronales, like the ones in their homeland -- como en tu tierra," said Frank Nieves, who is organizing the event as president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Broward County.

The tradition of the fiestas patronales began during the time of the Spanish conquest, when local leaders needed Spain's permission to create new cities. They were required to select a patron saint and build a church and a plaza, where most fiestas patronales now take place, Nieves said.

It's no mystery why Puerto Rican culture is taking hold in South Florida.

With 482,027 Puerto Ricans living in Florida, the state has replaced New Jersey as the state with the second largest number of Puerto Ricans. Most have settled in the Orlando area.

The Puerto Rican community in Palm Beach County has doubled from 1990 to 2000, and now numbers 25,170. In Broward, Puerto Ricans have more than doubled in the past decade and now make up the county's largest Hispanic group, with 54,938, according to census figures.

In Miami-Dade County, the number of Puerto Ricans has grown from 68,634 to 80,327.

Their presence is already evident in the number of Puerto Rican restaurants that are flourishing in the area.

Rosa Rivera, originally from Bayamón and a former New Jersey resident, owns El Rinconcito de Santa Barbara restaurant. El Rinconcito secured its reputation in South Florida through its first store in Hialeah. But with the growing number of Puerto Ricans moving to Broward, Rivera recently opened a second restaurant in Pembroke Pines.

"People feel good here because it reminds them of Puerto Rico," she said.

Hundreds of Puerto Ricans flock every weekend to El Rinconcito looking for a taste of home. The island's music mixes with the smell of arroz con gandules, rice and pigeon peas, to permeate the room with Puerto Rican flavor. Photos, paintings and Puerto Rican crafts decorate the colorful dining room.

But, politically, Puerto Ricans still are not playing the role that they deserve, said Nidza Vazquez, of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. Vazquez, who grew up near San Juan, regularly travels around South Florida as part of a voter registration drive to persuade Puerto Ricans in South Florida to bring their concerns to the polls. The initiative is financed by the Puerto Rican government.

Although Puerto Ricans living on the island cannot participate in the presidential elections, they can vote as soon as they arrive on the mainland.

If the Puerto Rican community votes," Vazquez said, "that would have a positive impact on the island. We could lobby as well for the issues of the island, but first we have to gain strength here."

Mike Rios, a West Palm Beach area resident who is president of the Puerto Rico, USA Democratic Hispanic Club in Palm Beach County, also is trying to move the Puerto Rican community to become more active politically.

As residents of a U.S. territory, Puerto Ricans live a split identity, divided between their loyalty for the island's culture and the American influence. They're American citizens, but they still hold onto their Spanish roots. They have fought in every war that the United States has been involved in since World War I, but they don't vote for the presidents who have sent them to the battlefield. They cannot trade with countries except the United States, but they don't pay federal taxes and they receive American aid.

They live what historians call a revolving door of migration. Because they can go back and forth easily between Puerto Rico and the mainland without a visa, they carry within them the influence of both places.

There are 3.8 million Puerto Ricans in the Caribbean island, and 3.4 million in the United States, according to the 2000 Census.

This cultural mix inspires many of the paintings of Miami-based artist Gerardo Oyola.

"As a painter and as a Puerto Rican I feel very proud of our exquisite culture," he said.

His paintings feature rural scenes from the island, musical instruments and allusions to Puerto Rico's traditions, which are an integral part of the fiestas patronales.

While David Rodriguez has lived away from Puerto Rico for more than 15 years, he carries its culture with him and has shared it with the world.

He was 15 when he saw the orchestra of Yomo Toro singing traditional Puerto Rican music.

"I heard him and thought, `This is the kind of music I want to perform,'" he said.

The Sunrise resident has since taken Puerto Rican folkloric music such as plena, danza and other typical styles around Europe, as far away as Jerusalem and through the United States. He has played with artists of the stature of Tito Puente and the Cuban diva, La Lupe.

"My dream of becoming an artist began at the fiestas patronales in Puerto Rico when I saw those great stars on stage," Rodriguez said.

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