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Pride And Problems; Ethnic Parades Marked By Financial Woes And Feuding When Money Reigns; Cash Can Be Key In Crowning Parade Queens Politicians In Step With Ethnic Parades
Pride And Problems; Ethnic Parades Marked By Financial Woes And Feuding
JEAN RIMBACH AND MIGUEL PEREZ, STAFF WRITERS
December 12, 2004
Ethnic parades raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in North Jersey, but the communities that play host to them have very little to show for it once the marching stops, The Record has found.
Taxpayers, meanwhile, are footing the bill for police overtime and cleanup. It's a major expense in the region's ethnic enclaves, where the colorful expressions of homeland pride step off almost every weekend during warm weather.
Parade officials accuse each other of theft and corruption, but year after year - even as the parade presidents change - money designated for charitable purposes simply disappears and bills go unpaid.
These celebrations go way beyond homemade costumes and homespun floats. They are, in fact, big business - with perhaps $300,000 changing hands during the largest events. And like those who have come before them, the region's burgeoning immigrant communities turn out in droves to cheer, wave flags and dance.
But what happens behind the scenes can't be seen from the sidewalks as the floats and marching bands pass by. The Record conducted scores of interviews, attended more than three dozen parade events and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents. During a six-month investigation, the newspaper found:
* Ethnic parades rife with questionable financial practices. Board members at one parade accuse the president of stealing, while the president of another complains she inherited a bankrupt institution. A few years back, one parade coordinator won a raffle held by his own group and readily accepted $5,000 from his financially strapped organization.
* Failure to comply with state and federal reporting laws governing charities and corporations, which hinders efforts to resolve financial questions. The Puerto Rican parade in Paterson, for example, keeps marching even though state records show it hasn't filed annual reports in two decades and its charter has been revoked.
* Substantial taxpayer liability. Newark spent nearly $600,000 for police overtime on this year's ethnic parades and festivals, and Paterson just recently won its defense of a lawsuit filed by 17 people alleging injuries suffered in a melee at a Peruvian event in 1997.
* Feuding over power and proceeds among board members of the private organizations that control and organize ethnic parades. At the Peruvian parade this year, one faction locked the other out of the post office box, changed the signature on the parade bank account and confiscated the cash from the organization's pageant. At least five major North Jersey parade groups are either in court or on the verge of legal action because of missing funds, mounting debts or defamation.
* Dubious fund-raising methods, such as crowning parade queens for their ability to rake in cash rather than talent or beauty and awarding the title of grand marshal to the community leader who makes the biggest donation.
* Little evidence that money raised is making its way back to the community. One Newark parade says it raised cash for scholarships last year but blames another organization for not giving them all out. Organizers of parades in Paterson and Newark say they can't account for thousands of dollars raised to build cultural centers.
Some community leaders say the questionable practices of parades need to be reined in.
"We in the Hispanic leadership should be more vigilant to force these institutions to remain at a higher level," said Daniel Jara, president of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey. "Because at the end of the day, when these scandals hit the street, they also affect non-profit organizations that are indeed doing what they should be doing, that have an infrastructure and keep their reports up to date."
Businesses and organizations that want to do outreach in ethnic communities see parades as a high-profile way to fulfill that mission. But some activists say parades siphon money away from more pressing community needs.
"Mainstream businesses should rethink how they spend their money in our community," said Wendy Martinez, a community activist and aide to Assemblyman Brian Stack. "They spend a lot of money on the parades and then you ask them for a measly $3,000 for a real community project and they won't give it to you."
Ethnic parades are grand celebrations. Many mark an independence day back home, commemorations not unlike the Fourth of July. They're a display of patriotism, community unity and empowerment, a time when Peruvian parade President Jose Moore said people "are thinking of their homeland while creating a future in this country."
Their numbers grow along with the size and influence of particular ethnic groups. In the last two decades, that growth has been most notable in the Hispanic community - and in their many parades.
"It got to the point when we were in 29 different parades," said Rafael Toro, director of public relations for Goya Foods. "There were Sundays when we were expected to be in three different parades, and so logistically it became almost impossible."
To be sure, parade controversies are not limited to Latinos or to New Jersey. In New York City, parades made headlines when officials argued over gays marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade and over the cast of the "Sopranos" taking part in the Columbus Day Parade. And in 2000, numerous sexual assaults marred the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York.
But the bad press does little to quell the public appetite for parades. Each year, on both sides of the Hudson, people line city streets and traffic grinds to a halt. At the most popular events, spectators stand 10 to 20 deep waiting for floats, folkloric groups and community leaders to pass.
Desfiles, as they are known in Spanish, may run only a mile or two or, as in the case of the state Peruvian parade, meander for more than seven miles through three cities.
"When you look down Main Street - Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, it doesn't matter whose parade it is - our people are happy to see the parade," said Maria Magda O'Keefe, a former Paterson councilwoman and head of the Hispanic Multipurpose Center. "They get up early in the morning, they go there with a little flag waving it up and down. ... They praise the Lord they have the day to see different parades. Some cry. Some laugh. Having the parade is extremely important."
Parades are also a way to make a statement, to show the political establishment that an ethnic group has the numbers to demand attention and respect.
"Parades are not only a demonstration of our political power, they are also an opportunity to demonstrate that we have education and culture and that we can achieve things," Moore said.
That's why commercial interests, politicians and even the media use the marches for exposure.
Media outlets often give parades free advertising, and organizers respond by bestowing honorary titles and sashes on on-air personalities. Sources at the two major Spanish-language TV stations, Univision's Channel 41 and Telemundo's Channel 47, said news anchors and other popular media figures are required to make a number of parade-related appearances every year.
"It's in my contract," said one newscaster who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions. "I'm not on the air tonight because I'm the emcee at a parade banquet. I get assigned to be at these events. The FCC requires that we all reach out to the community, and this is how the stations have us do that. Frankly, I think there are better ways."
In 2002, the Herald News, a sister publication of The Record, sponsored floats in the state Dominican parade and the Puerto Rican parade, both in Paterson. Su Guia, published by The Record's parent company, also participates in parades.
Politicians, meanwhile, spend tax dollars to cover parade costs and use their campaign funds to make donations and sponsor pageant contestants. Parade leaders, in turn, laud the politicians with sashes and titles, often at the instigation of the politicians' own aides.
Gerson Borrero, former editor and current columnist at El Diario La Prensa, sees this as the reason some parades can erupt in turmoil and skirt the law with little consequence.
"The politicians don't want to investigate the parades because they want to march in them," said Borrero, whose paper is the largest Spanish-language daily in the metropolitan area. "They worry that they won't be invited to march and so when it comes to irregularities, they look the other way."
Paterson Mayor Joey Torres, whose city spent more than $100,000 on police overtime and cleanup for three ethnic parades this year, acknowledged that they are viewed as sacrosanct in cities with large immigrant populations.
"Unfortunately, you are not going to get many elected officials to go against the will of the voters, of the people, of the taxpayers," Torres said. "It gets very hard ... to tell the community, who are the taxpayers, that you are not going to allow them to partake in a cultural celebration or a parade."
A spokesman for the New Jersey attorney general said he could not recollect a time when the state investigated a parade. "Parades, as in people marching down the street?" said John Haggarty. "The only way the Division of Criminal Justice would be involved is if there were allegations of criminal wrongdoing or criminal fraud."
Yet, across the Hudson, the Attorney General's Office has taken on some of New York City's oldest and biggest parades. In 2002, officials of the St. Patrick's Day Parade agreed to change some accounting practices and to file delinquent reports with state regulators.
And in 1988, officials of the Puerto Rican parade in New York City settled an investigation by promising not to engage in a series of illegal fund-raising activities and less-than-ethical practices, including awarding of scholarships to the children of board members.
Depending on their bylaws, parades are governed in many ways - from democratic to autocratic and everything in between.
The state Puerto Rican parade holds statewide elections for 27 board members and a president.
The Columbus Day parade in Bergen County doesn't even have a president, but is controlled by a small coordinating committee. The Cuban parade in Hudson County is run by the local Kiwanis Club.
Elsa Mantilla, founder of the state Dominican parade, falls more on the autocratic side of the spectrum. She's not about to give up control anytime soon.
"I don't want to give it to someone who has no experience," Mantilla said, noting that she was asked to retake the reins after the parade ran into financial trouble last year.
Parades can be expensive; there are musicians to hire, ethnic dance troupes to transport and professional marching bands to pay. In fact, without scores of benefactors and a host of fund-raising events, there'd likely be no parades.
At minimum, there are banquets, beauty pageants, festivals and raffles to raise money - much of it in cash. There might also be dances and Atlantic City trips to help support the parade.
Interviews and tax filings put the annual revenue of local parades groups at a low of $50,000 to a high of $300,000. Most put their take in the $70,000 to $170,000 range.
By way of comparison, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City reported revenues last year of $700,000.
Businesses and individuals are tapped for cash sponsorships, and asked to take ads in journals, buy banquet tickets, donate goods and services and finance floats in the parades.
Sponsors can also buy packages - at the state Hispanic parade this year, a $5,000 "Diamond" sponsorship included a full page in the souvenir journal, banners at events, tables at the banquet and a proclamation.
Floats - which bear celebrities, salsa bands or beauty queens - cost sponsors $1,500 or more to rent the decorated trailer itself. The cost for elaborate corporate versions can run into the thousands of dollars. Some parades also charge entry fees.
Festivals are cash cows for parades. Vendors pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a $1,000 or more for kiosks from which they sell pina coladas, empanadas and all sorts of merchandise.
Parade organizers make money off games, rides and beer sales at $2 or more a pop.
With lots of money to be raised and ethnic pride at stake, it would seem a simple formula to put on a parade. But personalities, power struggles and politics often get in the way.
The clock ticked as Peruvian girls in heavy native costumes waited for the curtain to go up on the annual coronation for parade queens. Hairdos sagged and makeup melted as girls sweated under hats and layers of fabric.
The holdup was the adults. The adults were fighting over who had control of the cash box and who would be master of ceremonies - even though a local radio personality was already there, dressed in a tuxedo, waiting to go on.
"It was a complete catastrophe. I have never seen anything like it," said Aurora Granados, whose daughter, Aida, eventually won Miss Simpatica. "Adults were arguing everywhere, shouting at each other in front of the children."
The hostility had been simmering for weeks between two factions in the parade organization. Saying he feared money was being stolen by the other side, President Jose Moore took out a newspaper ad warning the community to make donations only by check or money order.
Days later, Moore and his vice president were suspended by an outraged board of trustees who denied any wrongdoing and claimed the pair were behaving in an "autonomous and dictatorial way," failing to involve them in decisions and provide financial updates.
Moore didn't accept the suspension - in fact, he laughed it off. The board locked him out of the post office box and erased his name from the bank account.
By the time the pageant for queens rolled around, it was war. And the girls and their parents and friends were the casualties.
As people filed into the auditorium at Clifton High School, parent Rosa Soria heard Victor Alcalde, chairman of the board of trustees, threaten to cancel the event.
"I told him I don't care about their fights," she said. "I care about the girls and how they are going to feel."
Parents said some of the tickets for the pageant weren't being honored at the door and some of their guests had to pay a second time.
"I have never been more embarrassed," said Granados. "These were tickets that we sold to our friends and for which we had already turned over the money. But imagine what those people must have thought when they were rejected at the door. They must have thought I stole their money."
As tension grew, Moore called the police.
"You got to put aside your differences," one of the responding officers said to the feuding factions, shaking his head.
For a short time, they did. But still the tension grew.
By the end of the night, the trustees stood in a group backstage, just out of view; the president was by himself out front. The tuxedoed master of ceremonies had been forbidden to say Moore's name, but supporters in the audience screamed, "Let the president speak!"
At the parade banquet two weeks later, Moore was in full control and his adversaries were ready to give in. As 300 people ate dinner and watched a folkloric dance, negotiations were under way in the lobby.
With the president of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Daniel Jara, serving as mediator, Moore and Alcalde signed an agreement that formally recognized Moore as president. It gave him back access to the bank account and post office box, and required the board of trustees to "stay away from management and execution of all the activities."
Later that evening, when Jara announced "a peace treaty has been signed," the crowd shouted "Viva El Peru."
But Moore's victory was not yet complete.
Three weeks later, more than 100 Peruvians packed a community meeting and voted to ban Alcalde, former President Maria del Pilar Rivas and seven others for four years. They were accused of intentional malice, disloyalty and attempting to tarnish the name of the institution.
Angelica Rey got a standing ovation when she addressed the expelled board members.
"Get a job, find a way to maintain yourselves," she said. "The board is not the place to make money."
Title had a price
In the world of parade officials, stories about fund-raising indiscretions and kickbacks are legion, although few, if any, acknowledge participating in shady dealings themselves. Some allege sponsors may be asked to donate $5,000 for a band that charges just $2,000. Other insiders claim businesses secretly pay extra to put floats in a more prominent place in line. And others say parade board members have been known to receive commissions - sometimes thousands of dollars - on the sponsorships and advertising they bring in.
Other questionable fund-raising practices are less hidden but still prompt controversy.
In Paterson's Puerto Rican parade, the title of grand marshal - a position of honor - has been awarded based solely on the deep pockets of the honoree. President Daniel Vergara said his organization has put a price on the honorary title in past years, adding that he lost an argument with his board to do it again this year.
"I said, 'Well, listen, the grand marshal is a big deal,'-" said Vergara, a city school board member. "Everybody every year wants to be the grand marshal. And for the past few years everybody that was the grand marshal gave a nice donation to the Puerto Rican parade and that's how they got the sash. So listen, if we have somebody with $3,000 to $5,000 who is going to help the Puerto Rican parade, pin [on] him the sash of the grand marshal. But don't give it to anybody else just for the heck of it."
At the state Puerto Rican parade, queens are crowned based on how much money they raise. Girls spend months selling raffle entries, tickets for rides at festivals, Atlantic City trips and more.
The practice has its critics. Nelson Perez, a former board member, calls it "absurd."
"I thought that we should be teaching them how to perform and get an education, but not how to sell tickets in front of Pueblo Supermarket and other locations, or other events where they could be harmed, because a lot of times these kids are out there by themselves and they are pretty young," he said.
Parade President Irving Linares waves off the criticism. While he acknowledges that the beauty queens who raise the most money are the ones who get to wear the crown and win the prizes, he calls it "tradition."
And he points out he spends some of the money to take the winners to Florida and Puerto Rico.
He said he and several of his board members also make the trip - at the parade's expense.
One year a parade makes money, the next the same organization can be deeply in debt. It's a problem for parade board members, who routinely find themselves asking: Where's the money?
Organizers of the state Hispanic parade in Hudson County said they are conducting an audit of last year's parade to determine whether there were any improprieties to explain why they were left with $5,700 in debts. Coordinator Jose Follaco said records from last year show $57,000 in checks received from sponsors, and $23,000 in expenses.
"We cannot say that anyone took the money because we are conducting an audit," Follaco said. "When we finish the audit, that's when we'll be able to say they stole or they didn't steal."
Israel Romero, who ran the parade last year, said he didn't take any money and has nothing to hide: "If they take me to court, I will sue them for defamation."
When Paterson's Elsa Mantilla took over the state Dominican parade this year, it owed thousands to a local banquet hall for last year's gala and its beauty queen had been denied her prizes, she said. With no records from the previous year, she couldn't tell "how much they made and how much they spent."
"The condition it was in it was a disaster," Mantilla said.
Mantilla said she made a profit of $8,000 this year and gave out the prize money for last year and is making good on the banquet- hall debt.
Humberto Castellanos, the previous president, acknowledges that he could not pay all the bills last year. He said he did the best he could, given that he took over late in the year and didn't have enough support from board members.
"To direct a parade, it's all up to the president - all the board members support you when they can but you carry all the responsibility to see that things get done and often that's too much work for one person," he said.
Paterson's Puerto Rican parade, run this year by Daniel Vergara, also had a history of changing fortunes. Onelia Flores said she made $16,000 when she ran it in 2000. And in 2002, when sponsorships were sparse after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she still managed to pay the bills and have $1,500 left over.
In other years, that wasn't the case, she said.
"I've gotten many dirty looks from previous presidents because they didn't like what I did," she said. "They didn't like the fact that I was showing a profit because it made them look bad. I demonstrated that you could pay all the bills and still make a profit and they didn't like that."
This year the parade's in trouble again.
Three months after a successful parade and festival, the organization is at least $10,000 in debt. It's being sued by the banquet hall where it held its annual gala - two checks bounced - and it owes money to a printer and to the company that supplied the stage at the festival.
Board members said they can't understand how they are in debt when there were some 50 kiosks at the three-day festival, and beer sales alone should have brought in a tidy sum.
"A lot of that money comes in cash, so we will never know where it went," said Carmen Rodriguez, parade vice president.
"He took all that money and he didn't pay for anything," she said of Vergara. "And I'm telling you, I'm not going to be responsible for this."
Vergara scoffs at any suggestion of wrongdoing.
"I go to bed at night," he said. "I sleep like a baby."
The president maintains that the same board members who accuse him of theft were unwilling to keep expenses down or work hard to cover costs. He wanted a cheaper banquet hall, but they wanted "to drink champagne." Bouquets of flowers he never authorized were handed out at the beauty pageant, and he said one group used parade money to take themselves out to dinner. He claims most board members never even bothered to pay for their $100-a-plate banquet tickets or even give a donation.
Vergara admits he broke ranks with most of his board members only days before the parade and ran the show with his wife and friends.
Far from stealing, he said, he had to send his wife home one night to get $200 of their own money to pay security costs.
Rodriguez said the board took its allegations against Vergara to the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office. Chief Assistant Prosecutor Jay W. McCann confirmed Friday that the office has been contacted and has initiated what he called a "preliminary inquiry."
Vergara acknowledged that prosecutors had contacted him by letter and asked him to "come in for an inquiry.
"From what I can find out two women females went to the white- collar crimes unit and told them I stole all the money from the parade and the festival," he said.
"I told them I have nothing to hide," he said, adding that his accountant is preparing the paperwork that will prove he did nothing wrong.
Parades have great potential to do wonderful things for their communities - some promise scholarships and plan cultural centers - but often fall short.
"What they give is a lot of sashes and plaques," Mantilla says.
This year, the Peruvian parade could not keep its pledge to send $5,000 to the poor back home. Last year, according to its president, the state Puerto Rican parade set aside $10,000 for scholarships, but another organization failed to deliver all of them. And while several parades have spent years planning to build their own "casa," or cultural center, none has realized that dream.
The state Dominican parade wants a casa in Paterson. The state Hispanic Parade wants a "Casa de la Hispanidad" in Hudson County. At the state Puerto Rican parade in Newark, current and former presidents have been in court over the years, in part over money that was supposed to have gone to their Casa Puerto Rico.
Organizers of the Paterson Puerto Rican parade have twice tried to build their own casa, first in the 1980s and then 20 years later. But the money raised for the earlier effort has been sent to a charity in Puerto Rico created in 2000 by a former parade president.
Gerardo Toledo, who was on the parade board in 1982, said the group created a separate non-profit called Casa Puertorriquena de Paterson to prevent subsequent parade presidents from siphoning the funds for the parade or personal use. Some $14,000 remained in a local bank under that name for almost 20 years until former parade President Jose Lugo asked that it be wired to Puerto Rico.
"Lugo had already moved to Puerto Rico and had learned of certain necessities there," Toledo said.
When a Record reporter called Lugo at his home in the Puerto Rican city of Manati, the woman who answered said she didn't want to talk even before she was told what the call was about.
"We are not accepting calls from New Jersey," she said.
When the reporter persisted, the woman identified herself as Lugo's wife. "He is very sick and since he got out of that [parade], he has not wanted to involve himself in anything like that," she said.
She refused to divulge the names of the charity's officers or how they could be reached. Lugo's wife, Nelza Rodriguez, is listed in records in Puerto Rico as an officer of the charity.
The casa funds were not sent to Puerto Rico until three years ago, when Onelia Flores, then the parade president, began to put funds away for the second casa and wanted to pool the two funds together.
Flores said she has raised $35,000. She noted that she, too, created a separate corporation and bank account for the effort. The corporation is registered as a for-profit, but Flores said her lawyer will correct his mistake and change its status to non- profit.
Crowds lined both sides of Newark's Bloomfield Avenue, cheering as the state Puerto Rican parade passed. Ramon Guzman worked his way down the parade route, holding a large yellow sign overhead.
"Escandalo Financiero," the placard screamed in bold black letters, alleging a financial scandal and charging that parade President Irving Linares had failed to give his board members financial reports.
Like the one in Newark, many parades have accountability problems. Boards complain they get little documentation from dictatorial leaders, and incoming presidents grumble they get scant information from their predecessors. It's hard even for insiders to figure out how much money is coming and going.
With so little information available, it's difficult to determine if sloppy accounting or outright theft is at work, whether parade officials are arrogant or unaware of the law.
Members of the state Hispanic parade said last year's president left hardly any documents, just a shopping bag of receipts. In Paterson, Puerto Rican parade Vice President Carmen Rodriguez has been combing over bank statements but just can't find cash deposits that should have been made by the president.
Some presidents openly admit to changing the organization's name to distance the group from back taxes, bills and other obligations. Linares concedes he used a tax number that was not assigned to the organization, but says it was handed down to him by previous presidents.
Guzman, a board member of the Newark parade, said $300,000 flows through the parade in a year, without any accounting from Linares. "He functions as president, vice president, secretary, treasurer, everything. He has control of everything," said Guzman.
Linares claims the parade handles only $150,000 a year, but he does not have financial reports or tax filings to back that up - he said his accountant is working on bringing the organization up to date with the IRS. He said he expects to be able to report a surplus of $35,000 at a community meeting today.
Most parades, including the one Linares heads, are incorporated in the state as non-profits. Some are recognized as tax-exempt public charities by the IRS - such as the Hispanic parade and the Puerto Rican parade in Paterson - while others, including the one run by Linares, said they are trying to attain that status.
Since parade groups actively raise funds and seek private donations, they fall under a law requiring them to file with the Charities Registration Unit of the state Division of Consumer Affairs.
"The basic idea is to provide an element of protection for people who are interested in donating to charities," said Linda Czipo, executive director of the North Brunswick-based Center for Non- Profit Corporations. "The idea is that there is a centralized source of information about groups that are soliciting for donations."
Accountability is hampered by the state's inability to keep tabs on each of the thousands of organizations that do fund raising in New Jersey, of which parades are just a small fraction.
Jeff Lamm, a spokesman for the Division of Consumer Affairs, said some 20,000 groups are registered, and the largest often get the most scrutiny. In fact, there are 216 charities in New Jersey that have annual budgets of more than $10 million, and most, if not all, use paid fund-raisers. It boils down to priorities.
"You have some multimillion-dollar charities in the state that require a considerable amount of staff time," he explained, "and you have a lot of community-based charitable organizations that are much smaller in nature that are basically soliciting within the community with their own members."
In addition, under federal law, parades that are tax-exempt public charities and handle over $25,000 a year must file detailed reports with the IRS each year.
But compliance with all the reporting rules is spotty. Many parades haven't filed with the Charities Registration Unit or their files are not up to date.
The state Puerto Rican parade in Newark registered in 1996 and hasn't renewed the registration or filed financial information since.
And Paterson's Puerto Rican parade has never filed with Consumer Affairs, even though designated a public charity by the IRS. That's just one piece of its bookkeeping problems. State records show it hasn't filed any annual corporate reports in two decades, nor has it filed tax papers with the IRS since 1992. The IRS says its tax- exempt status is suspended.
State laws controlling the use of raffles to raise money are also sidestepped by some parade organizations.
The Paterson parade raffled off airfare to Puerto Rico this year even though state records show its registration with the Legalized Games of Chance Control Commission expired in September 1997.
Linares' parade is also not registered with the commission, yet raffles are an annual moneymaker for it. Instead, the Newark parade has other, duly registered non-profit groups get the raffle permits but runs the games itself.
"The raffle is managed by the parade," Linares said, "and then we give [the non-profit groups] all the facts about the money that has come in and they report it to the state."
But one of the groups Linares uses for this purpose hasn't filed a report with the state since 2001.
The state Hispanic parade, meanwhile, has never been registered with the commission. But it nevertheless held a raffle for a car a few years ago.
William Hernandez - then the parade coordinator - won. State law holds no prohibition against members of an organization winning its own raffle.
"I reached an agreement with the parade directors because there wasn't enough money to buy a car," said Hernandez, now chairman of the group. "I told them, if you give me $5,000, I'll donate the rest to the parade, since I know there isn't enough money. But it was all legal."
Parade of problems
TODAY: They are colorful expressions of homeland pride that are wildly popular among North Jersey's growing immigrant populations. But ethnic parades also have a darker side, where the image is one of financial irregularities and power struggles among the board members of the private community service organizations that run the parades.
MONDAY: What would a parade be without a queen riding slowly past on a float and waving to the masses? But like the parades themselves, the coronation of these icons of ethnic pride is a process often beset by problems - financial woes that cost winners their prizes, power struggles that cancel events altogether, and dubious selection methods.
TUESDAY: Politicians are major beneficiaries of parades. They wear the honorary sashes, march to the crowds' applause and display campaign signs. In return, politicians pledge tax dollars for security and cleanup without seeking financial accountability from the parade organizers.
When Money Reigns; Cash Can Be Key In Crowning Parade Queens
JEAN RIMBACH and MIGUEL PEREZ, STAFF WRITERS
December 13, 2004
As she stood poised on stage in a glittering gold gown, the awards for raven-haired Suiser Betancourt added up.
She seemed a lock for the title of Senorita Puerto Rico, which would make her a star in the annual state Puerto Rican parade.
Betancourt wowed the audience with a musical karate routine and captured the award for talent. Ethnic costume, evening dress, bathing suit and most photogenic - she triumphed in those competitions as well.
"I was sure that she was going to win," said her mother, Lydia.
But when the points were tallied, the 19-year-old black belt did not have enough to become a parade queen, or reina. It came down to money. She hadn't raised enough.
"We felt terrible," said Isabel Garcia of Trenton, one of the judges.
But parade President Irving Linares was unmoved. "She came to participate," he said, "not to win."
In the world of ethnic parades, queens hold a special place. But like the parades themselves, their coronation is a process often beset by problems - financial woes that cost winners their prizes and power struggles that cancel events altogether.
At one extreme is the pageant for Linares' state Puerto Rican parade, in which Betancourt and other contestants won or lost based on how much money they raised. He calls the dollars they bring in "the popular vote."
At the other are pageants that are showcases of culture, beauty and talent - colorful, entertaining events with folkloric dances and ethnic pride in which contestants connect with their roots and their community.
However they are chosen, queens are important to the success of a parade. Organizers know the sight of a young woman in a tiara waving from a float is tradition and an indispensable attraction for the throngs who line city streets.
"A parade without a queen is not a parade," said Elsa Mantilla, president of the state Dominican parade, based in Paterson. "Since the first year we had the parade here, we always had a queen. This is the woman who represents the beauty of the Dominican Republic."
Beyond that, money raised during the pageants is important to the overall bottom line of some parades, and organizers ask aspiring queens to obtain sponsors, sell tickets and otherwise help cover costs.
For the most part, those who vie for a title are girls and young women; although some parades also have a "king's" contest. All are drawn by the lure of being singled out as a cultural icon.
Even those who see the good in pageants concede there's also the potential for abuse.
"Sometimes people's personal agendas get involved. They forget this is about the kids and not about them, not about who gets credit for doing something. It's not about how much money is made," said Belitza Callegari, who runs a modeling school in Paterson and has trained contestants for various pageants.
Pursuing the crown
Competing for parade queen is no small feat - there is a cost in dollars and time. But the payoff can be heady.
"It is overwhelming," said Florins Martinez, queen of the Essex County Dominican parade. "When you are up there and that massive amount of people are cheering and singing and they are all waving the flag around, you just feel like you already know them and you're all just sharing the same great happiness. The energy comes out and rubs off on you. You're up there doing the best you can, trying to wave at everybody and say hi to everybody. It feels wonderful."
The work begins long before the pageant. There might be an event where the candidates are presented to the public, or separate fashion and talent shows. Contestants may work to sharpen their Spanish skills to impress judges or spend time researching the region their family calls home.
There are rehearsals for the coronation, where candidates may perfect a model's walk or an ethnic dance routine. Jessica Mendez, 19, of North Arlington, a queen of last year's state Puerto Rican parade, said that "our knees were black from throwing ourselves on the floor" while practicing a Caribbean dance.
And there is money spent on dresses, hair, makeup - at times even elaborate costumes symbolizing the contestant's heritage - such as mango trees or sugar cane. Aida Crespo, 41, of Newark said her costume depicting music, one of several outfits she wore at a competition she won last year, had 3,000 rhinestones and cost her $900.
Contestants spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand as they pursue the crown. Soany Montilla, a past Dominican parade queen, said she cobbled together the $3,000 she needed through family, friends, credit cards and savings. She had to go into New York to get just the right fabric for her native costume.
Some try more than once to win. Jomayra Jimenez, 16, captured the title of Miss Puerto Rico for the Paterson parade this year, her second attempt at the crown. The teen gained an edge with a win for talent - she performed a history of the Taino Indians in dance and words.
"I didn't give up on my dream," said a beaming Jimenez minutes after her victory. "I knew my day would come."
Sometimes the big day never does come. Yara Grullon, 15, of West New York was named queen of a Hudson County Dominican parade this summer, but has no place to wear her crown. The date of the parade was changed twice before it finally was canceled in the midst of a battle between organizers and the Union City mayor.
"I was sad, mad," said Grullon. "We wasted money on that pageant and they didn't give me anything and I didn't get to be in the parade. My mom was disappointed too because she spent her money and we didn't get anything out of it. We had to buy clothes and had to sell tickets."
Parents, friends and other spectators cheer the girls on at pageants, each with its own flavor and peculiarities. Some events are small and homespun like Grullon's, in which just seven girls competed. Others are large banquet-style affairs with more than two- dozen contestants, several age categories and titles.
At the Peruvian pageant, audience members carried signs bearing the participants' names and messages in English and Spanish. "Ashley Tu Familia Te Apoya," said one poster, meaning "your family supports you."
The pageant, held at Clifton High School, was nearly canceled when organizers argued over receipts and who was to be the master of ceremonies. Police were called in an attempt to resolve the standoff.
When the Paterson Puerto Rican parade selected its queens, parents sat at tables with framed photographs of their daughters. The journal distributed for another parade included pictures of teenage girls in gowns, on the beach in bathing suits, and their vital statistics: height, weight, bust and waist size.
Contestants can be seen praying together before some events, even wishing one another good luck. Friendships are forged even though just one can take top honors.
Still, tensions can run high. At one event, a 10-year-old in a white gown chokes up and cries trying to answer a judge's question. At another, a teen tells a pageant coordinator "you ripped my dreams from my hand" when she loses, charging the contest was fixed.
"The most difficult part of the parade is the pageants," said Ilia Villanueva, a former parade president. "Everyone wants their daughter to be the queen. You have the emotions of people; you have the emotions of the fathers and mothers."
The closer it gets to announcing the winner, crowds get on their feet and draw closer to the stage. Judges confer. Scores are kept on anything from little slips of scratch paper to computers.
The Puerto Rican parade in Paterson kept Excel spreadsheets running; so did Dominicans in Essex County, who had a notary and an accountant on hand to keep watch and certify scores. Peruvians, meanwhile, kept score by hand and the crowd grew impatient as the numbers were counted and recounted.
Sometimes the results are less certain.
Florins Martinez, who's 17, said she was first runner-up for state Dominican parade queen two years ago. When the queen later resigned for personal reasons, Martinez said, pageant organizers handed the crown to the second runner-up, claiming they had made a mistake in scoring at the pageant.
"My mother, she just had a fit," said Martinez. "She just went completely crazy."
In addition, Martinez said, she didn't get a promised round-trip ticket to the Dominican Republic. The company she was supposed to call never answered the phone and its Web site didn't work.
Other queens tell similar stories of unfulfilled promises. Soany Montilla was queen of the state Dominican parade last year in Paterson. But the 25-year-old Passaic resident said she was told the group couldn't afford to give her the $500 cash prize and vacation package to the Dominican Republic. The new parade president said she gave her $1,000 from the proceeds of this year's parade.
Still, Montilla is upbeat about having competed.
"The positive is I had the opportunity to meet new people, I had opportunity to do something new I'll always remember," said Montilla. "The negative is I don't like when people offer or promise you things and don't fulfill it. That was just a disappointment. But the positive totally overcame the negative."
In the state Puerto Rican parade in Newark, where Suiser Betancourt competed, the real competition for reinas takes place in city streets, parks and businesses in the months before the late- summer pageant.
"It's all about how much money you bring in," explained Neylivee Rivera, 15, who said she started her quest for a crown this year in February. She came in second in the "juvenil" category after raising $7,374 - $244 less than the winner.
There are raffle tickets to sell - this year for a computer - and sponsors to bring in. Contestants, many donning two-piece bathing suits, take turns in a dunking tank set up at the parade's Salsa Festival to boost their earnings.
"Guys, see this beautiful girl - she's only 15. She's competing for Miss Teen," the announcer said as Rivera waited on the platform in a pink-flowered bikini. "Three balls, two dollars."
Geraldyne Ruiz competed for a crown three years ago, at age 13. She sold chances to win a car, as well as tickets for other parade events. At the festival she sold tickets for rides. She also raffled items purchased by her father, including a radio and bottles of liquor. This year, contestants held raffles for items such as a margarita set, DVDs and a television.
"I worked very hard, at supermarkets, bars - I sold tickets everywhere," said Ruiz.
One former member of the parade board sees problems.
"Children should not be used to raise funds," said Nelson Perez, who has sparred with Irving Linares, the current parade president. "I always felt they put a lot of pressure on these young girls to sell. It's also a safety issue. You are talking about 12-year-old girls selling tickets in front of a bar. A girl should not have to sell 10,000 tickets to be the queen. It should be about exposing them to our culture."
Italians in Bergen County don't even hold a pageant to select the queen of their Columbus Day parade. Instead, they simply ask contestants to write an essay; then they select the best work, and crown the writer at their banquet. Even non-Italians are welcome to compete. This year, 18 girls answered the question: How do you rate the leadership in our country and in the world?
Suiser Betancourt admits she got a late start on her sales, entering the race for Senorita Puerto Rico about a month before the pageant and trying to raise money "everywhere I could think of."
She had to - there's a $3,000 minimum to be in the running for a crown.
"It's a lot of work selling," she said. "You meet a lot of people, you socialize. They don't understand it's for the Puerto Rican parade. They think it's going somewhere else - into somebody else's pocket."
Girls give the money from the raffles and other sales to Linares, the parade president, and he gives them receipts. Parents keep a close watch - Linares said that the night before the pageant some parents were with him until 4:30 a.m. as he tallied the score.
For these prospective queens, money is king. Three queen titles are openly based on money raised, but other factors were supposed to be in play for Senorita Puerto Rico, such as the talent and costume categories Betancourt won. Nevertheless, she lost to someone who had won no other categories but raised more than the roughly $3,700 she brought in.
"I think it's very unfair," said Betancourt. "What's the point of having to go do the dresses, do the competition? You might as well just bring in the money and say who wins and that's it."
Linares makes no apologies for the rules of the contest, saying it is a parade tradition to equate dollars raised to pageant points.
He tried to insist winning Senorita Puerto Rico wasn't dependent on cash. But he backed down when a reporter pointed out that Betancourt won all but one of those categories this year and someone else was named queen.
Still, he said Betancourt was told she had a poor chance of winning the title - and the prizes that came with it, trips to Florida and Puerto Rico - because she began raising money so late.
Linares said the money raised during the pageant supports the parade, and that if money is left over from the parade, some of it goes for scholarships. Last year, though, seven of ten $1,000 scholarships went unspent, which he blamed on another community organization.
At a community meeting Sunday, Linares presented financial reports for 2000 through 2003. There was no report on 2004, even though Linares said earlier that he would bring his disclosure totally up to date at the meeting.
He said that when he presents the report on 2004 to his board in January, he expect to show a profit of $35,000 to $37,000. He said that out of that money he will propose to the board to set aside $25,000 for a "home of the parade."
The most recent document lists a balance of $7,738.59 as of December 2003.
To be sure, money raised by pageant contestants is also important to other parades. It's common for competitors to be asked to help sell tickets for events or be required to get a sponsor. But other parade organizers said they draw the line at counting the money raised as a factor in selecting a queen. Some called it a throwback to an earlier time, and board members in Trenton and Paterson said they did away with the practice.
"In the past those girls were exploited and I wasn't going to have it," said Onelia Flores, the former president of the Paterson Puerto Rican parade.
This year, for example, the same parade required a $15 entry fee and asked girls to sell $250 in raffle tickets, or get a sponsor for $250. Anything more was by choice, and they could keep half to help with expenses. Winners were selected based on an extensive list of criteria, including beauty, poise, communication, academics, cooperation, an interview with the parade board and a separate talent competition.
Peruvians also required a $250 sponsor and a $30 entry fee, and awarded a trophy to the girl who sold the most tickets to the pageant. The Paterson and Essex County Dominican parades asked for $700 and $600 sponsorships, respectively, and gave the girls back half for expenses.
As a result, pageants can be moneymakers for parade organizations. Even after pageant costs such as the crowns and banquet hall are paid, there's usually $5,000 or more left to spend on the parade itself, according to a vice president of the Paterson Puerto Rican parade. The Dominicans in Paterson, put that number at more than $6,000.
In the pageant run by Irving Linares in Newark, though, the emphasis on money has made for plenty of anger and distrust.
Three years after her bid to be queen, Geraldyne Ruiz is still furious at the outcome, believing she was cheated out of the crown - an allegation Linares denies.
"I played by the rules," said Ruiz, now 16. "But I gave all my sweat so that they would steal the crown from me. ... I didn't kill myself selling tickets to get a sash and that's it. I did it to be the queen."
"In the end, although I gave him more than $10,000, he never took me to either Florida or Puerto Rico," she added.
Linares and some of his board members also go on the trips, and in the past so have second-place winners. This year the parade paid for one runner-up, or princess, who raised more than $7,000.
But Suiser Betancourt, who wanted to go to Puerto Rico with the others, had to borrow the money for plane fare from her karate teacher and pay for her own meals. Linares let her room with one of the winners.
"Only one princess, the one with the most money, was able to go," Betancourt said. "And that was very unfair."
Linares said he intends to change the rules of the contest next year so that crowns are not so dependent on money. He may audition candidates, eliminate categories, be more discriminating, and "bring out the best of Puerto Rican women."
Even so, the president said, contestants will have to raise money to help cover the cost of the parade.
And, he added, they'll need "an incentive to sell."
Politicians In Step With Ethnic Parades
JEAN RIMBACH and MIGUEL PEREZ, STAFF WRITERS
December 14, 2004
Moments after marching in Paterson's Peruvian parade, Mayor Joey Torres told the adoring crowd how proud he was to play host to such a momentous event. Then he stepped down from a City Hall grandstand and did an about-face.
"These parades are killing us," Torres confided. "You have no idea how much we have to spend."
Torres captured a common sentiment among politicians, the love- hate relationship with parades, which strap municipalities with significant bills for police overtime and street cleanup but also serve as a perfect forum to demonstrate solidarity with ethnic communities.
In almost every parade this year, politicians took center stage. They greeted constituents, carried campaign signs, wore honorary sashes and asked voters for support.
Passaic Sheriff Jerry Speziale threw Mardi Gras beads from his float at two Paterson parades, and brought along lines of official vehicles. James E. McGreevey, who was governor at the time, shouted "Viva Portugal" in Newark and "Viva Puerto Rico" in New York City - all in one day. Freeholder and sheriff candidates plastered cars with campaign signs in Bergen County at the Columbus Day parade. The list goes on.
Whatever the cost, it's the rare politician who will turn down a chance to march in a parade or refuse to allow one to take place. In fact, politicians and parades are so closely intertwined that each has grown dependent on the other. Consider:
*-Many key members of the private civic organizations that run parades work for politicians, and some elected officials serve on parade boards. In Newark, two parade leaders work for a city councilman. In Paterson, the Puerto Rican parade president is a member of the school board, the Peruvian parade president works for an assemblywoman and Councilman Jerry Rosado is a vice president of the Puerto Rican parade.
*-Politicians benefit from parades, which give them ample opportunity to wave at the crowds without having to take a compromising stand on the issues affecting ethnic communities. Parades show support for politicians by bestowing honorary titles upon them - often at the suggestion of the politicians' own staffs, or better yet, awarded by parade organizers who also work for politicians.
*-Sometimes, parades and politicians get too close. There was no Dominican parade in Hudson County this year after parade organizers sparred with Union City Mayor Brian Stack. In 2001, gubernatorial hopeful Bret Schundler was prevented from marching in a parade run by allies of McGreevey.
*-Elected officials readily support parades with tax dollars, although they seldom seek fiscal accountability. Paterson spent more than $108,000 this year on three ethnic parades and festivals. Politicians also spend their own campaign funds to lease parade floats, to buy banquet tables, to sponsor contestants for queen and to advertise in ad journals.
Politicians claim they use city funds to pay for security and cleanup because people love a parade. Often, officials support parades over the objections of merchants complaining about lost business.
"Unfortunately, you are not going to get many elected officials to go against the will of the voters, of the people, of the taxpayers," Torres said. "It gets very hard ... to tell the community, who are the taxpayers, that you are not going to allow them to partake in a cultural celebration or a parade."
But parade leaders also use the marches to politic - as Schundler, the former mayor of Jersey City, found out in 2001 at a Hudson County Dominican parade where his opponent, McGreevey, had been named the parade's "international grand marshal."
The parade president instructed West New York police to block the candidate and some of his Latino supporters from marching, said Pedro Martinez, who worked for the Schundler campaign. The candidate and his supporters marched in protest but only at the tail end of the parade.
A rival Hudson County Dominican parade generated controversy this year - a dispute that became so bitter that there was no parade.
One parade run by a Stack ally, Freddy Gomez, received a permit while the organizer of the other parade, Robert Guzman, said Stack twice delayed granting him a permit, giving him little time to organize.
The feud escalated, with one faction calling for Stack to resign and the other organizing a protest march against Guzman.
In the end, neither parade came off, for lack of sponsors. Guzman filed a harassment complaint against Stack, and the mayor charged Guzman and a partner with exploiting the parade for their own benefit.
Calls for oversight
The relationship between politicians and parades often leaves little room for regulation.
Several local officials said they are well aware of the infighting, lawsuits and charges of theft associated with some parades. Yet they maintain it's not their job to police the parades.
Their reach doesn't extend beyond the routine - such as making sure organizers have insurance, obey the health codes and apply for necessary permits, they said.
"There's always been allegations of stealing money," Torres said. "Does Big Brother need to maintain a watch? I would say so. But that's a whole different level. As far as I know, that's an Internal Revenue, state and federal issue.
West New York Mayor Albio Sires agreed that it's up to state and federal authorities to investigate parades, but added, "Somebody should look into some of these events. It's all about big bucks."
Through the years there have been some attempts at consolidating parades to cut costs, and recently there have been rumblings in a few cities to cut back support and increase accountability.
In East Orange this past summer, city officials refused to fund security and cleanup for the annual parade by a Caribbean group, and it was canceled for the first time in 17 years. The parade is part of a daylong event that includes a festival with ethnic foods, vendors and bands. City officials normally had a float in the parade.
The cost to the city for the entire celebration usually runs $61,000. But this year with only the festival, the cost dropped to about $20,000, said city spokesman Darryl Jeffries. The city is willing to make some contribution, but "the burden should not be placed on the citizens of the city for one group," he said.
In Newark, Councilman Agusto Amador wants to require the non- profit groups responsible for parades and festivals to file financial reports with the city after the events and to pick up some of the police and cleanup costs.
"I think the city should exercise a stronger control and there should be more responsibility on the part of those promoters of those events," said Amador, suggesting that the groups running the events should contribute to police and cleanup costs - perhaps 10 percent or 20 percent of the bill.
In addition to those costs, parades can also expose cities to lawsuits and other problems. Paterson spent seven years defending its officers from brutality charges stemming from a melee after a Peruvian parade. The city recently won its case. This year, 12 people were arrested for fighting at the Dominican festival in the city, and an officer injured his back when a crowd fell on him.
Meanwhile, the idea of merging some parades "has been kicked around for a long, long time," Torres said.
"It's just a question of how you are going to make that jell to make sure that it is more inclusive than divisive," Torres said.
But Torres cautioned it would take a brave politician to ask Peruvians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans in Paterson to come together in one single parade.
"It's a political football," he said. "I don't think you'll get an elected official to take that stand."
In Hudson County, Sires does.
"We should only have one Hispanic Day Parade to celebrate the Hispanic heritage, and everybody should participate, the Cubans, the Dominicans, the Mexicans - everybody," Sires said. "We would run it through the town and that should be it."
But Sires said that whenever he makes that suggestion, "what they do is go out in the community and say I'm anti-Dominican or anti- Cuban or anti-Peruvian." And so, Sires continues to waive the fees for the cost of cleanup and security, although local law requires organizers to pay. And he keeps marching in the parades.
"If I don't go to the parades, people call here to ask me why," Sires added. "They accuse me of neglecting the community."