Thinking about Pride
It is Pride month. A time formally associated with LGBQT pride and the long struggle for recognition of basic human and civil rights and equality for people across racial and ethnic divides. It was also the Puerto Rican Day parade, a time associated with flag and identity pride for Puerto Ricans. All of this has given me some pause to consider pride, and how it is both constructed as a tool and used a weapon, as well as the fine distinctions between pride and dignity, and how the one is required so as to demand the other.
I have always been a proud Puerto Rican from the Bronx, I even include it in my bio, mostly because for so long I was supposed to be ashamed of it. So much of that identity, especially in the 70s and 80s, was scrutinized exclusively through its negative connotations. That is one way pride is born: out of defiance. There are of course limits to this kind of pride, dangers even, in that it can be misconstrued as an attachment to a single, static way of being defined by that defiance. If you are proud you are supposed to do a, b, or c and sound like this or look like that… All of it nonsense. Pride does not require monolithic adherence to a single set of identity cues. However, defiance is a place to start, and often a good one.
Yesterday was the Puerto Rican day Parade in NYC. It is a parade that originated in defiance. It was illegal for Puerto Ricans to fly, possess or display the Puerto Rican flag until la “Ley de la mordaza” was overturned in 1957. The fist Puerto Rican Day Parade in NYC was in 1958 and, naturally, it was flooded with Puerto Rican flags that had been illegal under two colonial powers on the island, Spain and the United States. On the island people went to jail for carrying that flag or even having it in their homes. It is a history important to remember as you see 5th Avenue awash in Puerto Rican flags on the 60th Anniversary of a parade that should also be remembered as having started during a time in the late 50’s when Puerto Ricans were told they could not even apply for the doorman jobs on 5th Avenue, and were frequently referred to as “the Puerto Rican problem” in newspapers and magazines.
Puerto Ricans and their “flag obsession” are often mocked. More than once I have heard people say things like “That flag doesn’t even mean anything. It’s not a country.” Legal status is an issue, and often one of pride. Nationalist pride is also the cornerstone of wars throughout history. However, in symbolic terms the Puerto Rican flag is the flag of a borderless people. A people defiantly clinging to an identity the United States has done everything possible to take from them. Yesterday’s parade was a gift. Under the guise of “anti-terrorist” positioning politicians and corporations alike dropped out of the parade. Corporations like Goya, Coca Cola and Jet Blue who make billions in profits from Puerto Ricans thought they could pressure the parade into not honoring Oscar Lopez Rivera by dropping out. I had not been to the parade in many years, but made it my business to go. Nothing like the need to defy to sharpen the edges of pride. The truth is I was deeply heartened to see the Puerto Rican people taking a position of defiance and pride. We don’t need Goya or Coca Cola to fly our flag or show our pride and in fact the parade was better without them. There is nothing that Goya makes, cans, or freezes ( including adobo) that my grandmothers have not taught me how to make better. There are many brands of guandules and beans on the shelves of every super market. I make my own sofrito. The soda market is drying up world wide as people get more health conscious, and Coca Cola is a main stay in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans, and Latina/os in general are known to be loyal consumers. They stick with their brands. However, it is clear that loyalty has only been a one way street. Puerto Rican consumers should think about the power of their dollars. I know that I am thinking long and hard about where to place mine. I happily spent most of them this weekend on Puerto Rican artisans at the 116th street festival on Saturday. Choices are also a form of protest.
I, for one, am glad the corporations didn’t come to the parade. Gone were the gaudy look a-like floats with crowned beauty queens, glittered sashes and product placement everywhere. This parade was dominated by labor unions, community and political organizations and Puerto Ricans of many different political ideologies expressing their concerns. There was a great deal of pride and the flag was, as usual, everywhere. “Que bonita bandera” played by a marching band from Lorraine, Ohio was a highlight for me. As were the “batoneras” who reminded me of my unfulfilled childhood dream of being a baton twirling girl in the Puerto Rican day parade. Who knows? Maybe I can’t start a group for next year of 21 and over ( over times two ot three even)baton twirlers. The parade feels suddenly spacious and filled with possibility.
There was also a great deal of protest and resistance and defiance. The black and white version of the Puerto Rican flag, in circulation since 2016 when an artist collective in Puerto Rico painted over a famous flag door front in old San Juan as a protest against the junta that has been put in place by the US to control to islands finances, was also present in a variety of ways in conjunction with many groups and messages. This is democracy. This is self-definition. No symbol is sacred. No idea uncontested. No corporate sponsorship required. It is about winning the hearts and minds of the people through open communication. I am grateful to Oscar Lopez Rivera for being both willing to defy, and having the humility to step down as grand marshal so as to” take the focus off of me and put it on the Puerto Rican people.” His presence created space for possibility. He, at 74, after more than three decades in prison, is not the future of Puerto Rico or Puerto Ricans. He is a rich and important part of our history, and so was yesterday’s parade. We, the Puerto Ricans, alive and working today, are the future of Puerto Rico and our cultural heritage and identity. I have always been a proud Puerto Rican, but today I feel a connection between that pride and a larger movement to define a future where our pride requires that we demand our dignity.
Finally, I disagree with Melissa Mark-Viverito, though I agree with much that she did to make this parade what it was. Together with the board of directors for the parade, she withstood a great deal of pressure to fold and I am grateful and proud of the stand she took. However, in a moment of apparent exhaustion with the whole thing Mark-Viverito blamed journalists for turning the debate into a big deal. “This is a day of unity, a celebration, not a controversy being made up by the press,” she told 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern. I am now alarmed by the blame the press movement in politics. Mark-Viverito is no stranger to confrontation and conflict and this parade was a moment of controversy. A good one. During a time when corporations and billionaires are taking the American government hostage, it is a good example to show the people that we’re in fact “the people” for whom these governments and corporations exist and not the other way around. I stand proud and defiant and ready for more.