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The Daily Journal

Puerto Rican Festival Grew From Humble Beginnings To Weeklong Event

BY Doug Fuhrmann

July 26, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Daily Journal, Vineland. All rights reserved.

Depending on the source, it would seem that the date of the city's first Puerto Rican Festival has been lost in the fog of history.

Some document the date as July 25, 1968, while others cite 1967 as the initial year.

Radio host Francisco Torres, however, is quick to point out that the origins date back even further.

A weekend voice on 1270 AM, Torres has been researching Vineland's Puerto Rican community extensively for a book he plans to have published on its history.

The premise for the annual festival, he said, dates to the Puerto Rican Social Action Club that organized here in 1956.

Among its other activities, the group proposed a proclamation setting aside a date each July as Puerto Rican Day.

The group took its proclamation all the way to Trenton, meeting with Gov. Robert B. Meyner in the Statehouse.

Locally, it was signed by outgoing Vineland mayor Frank Testa prior to his leaving office in 1960.

As reported in the Vineland Times Journal on July 25, 1960, the ex-mayor spoke at an observance in the club building, referring to Puerto Rico as "the greatest island in the Caribbean."

One of numerous speakers, Testa also noted that - despite a language barrier - the city's Puerto Ricans were instrumental in every civic enterprise, such as a recent building fund for Newcomb Hospital.

The event at the North Third Street club, reportedly, was in commemoration of the Jones Act, which on July 2, 1917, gave United States citizenship to Puerto Ricans. It also coincided, however, with the eighth anniversary of the day Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth - July 25, 1952.

Torres said annual observances similar to the 1960 gathering continued to be held.

Felix Rivera, who joined the club in 1962, can remember attending those celebrations, as well as parades in Trenton and Vineland in which the club participated throughout the years.

On July 23, 1967, Puerto Rico voted to retain commonwealth status. And it was this same year, Torres believes, that a group of local citizens formed what can be considered the city's first Puerto Rican Festival.

Little, if anything, was reported in the Vineland Times Journal on such an event. However, one year later, the paper published a large front-page photo of a Puerto Rican flag being raised at City Hall on July 25, 1968.

This celebration also included an interfaith service at Sacred Heart Church, the first observance of its kind in Vineland.

As the schedule grew over the years, from a reported two-day "Puerto Rican Day" celebration by 1974 to a three-day "festival" in 1976, its dates sometimes shuffled to coincide with a weekend near July 25.

"We started small and it has grown," former Puerto Rican Festival Committee President Juan Colon told The Daily Journal in 1998.

The festival organization incorporated in 1978 and began planning even larger events. Highlights that year included a six-mile race and a Puerto Rican art exhibit at Vineland Public Library.

Held in 1969 as a "fiesta" at Giampietro Park, the festival in the 1970s moved to Landis Park, where it has been ever since.

By 1980, much of its traditions - including beauty queens, food booths, the flag raising and a "car caravan" parade - had long been established.

By the end of that decade, the festival had grown into its current status as a full-blown, weeklong celebration.

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