Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rochester, New York's Puerto Rican Festival Is Unwelcoming To Other Latino Cultures


Last month, Ida Perez, who writes for La Voz newspaper in Rochester, NY, decided to take some shots at me in her column. She called me out on my May debut column, in which I confronted White America's Racism and Prejudice against Latinos. As a filmmaker, who has exposed Police Brutality and Misconduct, here in my hometown of Rochester, I am used to controversy. I'm also known to confront and speak out on issues when most people are afraid to do so. So while I respect this writer's opinion, I think it was a little "out of class", to call me out, another fellow writer and contributor to La Voz. In her article, titled "Racism Among Our Own" the writer points out how Latinos are very divided within our own cultures. The writer even uses the word "segregation" to describe the division among different Latino cultures. I think it's a little hypocritical of this writer to say these things, especially since the writer sits on the board of the Puerto Rican Festival. A festival who has been around for 42 years! And a festival who clearly, by its name, practices it's own form of divisiveness, and exclusion of all Latino cultures, except Puerto Ricans.

I am a Latino and proud of it. My parents came from Cuba in 1968 with my brother, who was 6 years old. They briefly settled in Miami before moving here to Rochester where I was born. As a Cuban-American in Rochester, I am far removed from my roots and from my culture. So I'm always trying to learn more about my culture, its history, food, literature and music.

I realize that the majority of the Hispanic population in Rochester is Puerto Rican - and every summer they hold the Puerto Rican festival. However, I also realize that there are many other Latino groups living in Rochester: Cubans, Dominicans, Mexicans and the list goes on. So, every year when the Puerto Rican Festival comes around, I feel a bit left out. I have relt this way for many years, and I'm not alone.

I respect that Puerto Ricans were among the first Latinos to settle in Rochester in significant numbers. I also understand that the Puerto Rican Festival is the longest-running festival in Rochester, having been founded in 1969. However, I feel that after over 40 years, the festival should have evolved and become more welcoming to all Latino cultures. Its very success requires expansion.

I want to make something clear: I have nothing against the Puerto Rican community. In fact my 10-year-old niece is half Puerto Rican.

However, I think the festival is a wonderful opportunity to educate not only the larger community but even Latinos themselves, about the diversity within our culture. The public at large often confuses race, ethnincity, national origin and other categories of group membership - failing to realize, for example , that many Latinos are Caucasian. Or the reverse: I've had African-American friends who have been surprised to encounter a black person who speaks Spanish - someone of Afro-Cuban descent.

I also have frequently encountered a misunderstanding even among Latinos of the origin and diversity of Latino culture. For example, I've talked to many young Latinos who do not realize that we can all trace our roots back to Spain. Many Anglos and Latinos I've talked to are surprised to discover that Hispanics originated in Europe - like so many of America's other immigrants. Much as England is the "mother" country for all English-speaking nations, Spain is the "mother" country for all Spanish-speaking nations - Puerto Rico, Cuba, Mexico or any other Central or South American nation where Spanish is the principal language. These and various other issues could be further clarified and Latino culture more fully highlighted by an all-inclusive festival that not only welcomes various Latino groups but represents and emphasizes the diversity of this rich culture - starting with the very name of the festival.

After all, Cubans in Miami started the Calle Ocho Festival, and could have very well called it "The Cuban Festival" but they never did that! Instead the "Calle Ocho Festival", also called "Carnaval Miami", is a real festival which really celebrates and embraces ALL Latino cultures, not just Cubans.

The Puerto Rican Festival's mission statement on their website in part used to read "To foster the education of others on the intricate values of people of Hispanic descent." After my challenge to them a few years ago, in which I wrote an essay pointing out that they were not living up to their own mission statement by excluding all other Latinos who weren't Puerto Rican, and in which I called on them to change the name of the festival, interestingly they decided to replace the word "Hispanic" with "Puerto Rican." Now their mission statement reads: "To foster the celebration of the history and heritage of people of Puerto Rican descent." I ask the Puerto Rican Festival board, Why did your original mission statement read "To foster the education of others on the intricate values of people of Hispanic descent" if by the festival's name it is clear that you exclude all other Latinos? But most importantly, I ask them: Why did you change your mission statement?

I'd like to renew my challenge to the Puerto Rican Festival board, including Ms. Ida Perez: In 2012, for the 43rd anniversary of the Puerto Rican Festival, change the name and make it the Rochester International Hispanic Festival. And to Ms. Perez, you mentioned the word "segregated" in your article about divisiveness among Latinos. I ask you: How much more segregated can you get than a festival, which after 42 years, continues to exclude anyone who is not Puerto Rican?

1 comment:

  1. Dear Partner,

    Now that our First Oscar – Mandela March in Puerto Rico was successful, we can look forward to an even bigger success with our First Oscar Mandela Protest in New York City. This year, The New York City Puerto Rican Day Parade, a week before our protest, will honor our political prisoner Oscar López Rivera.

    On Monday, June 23, 2014, the United Nations (UN) will be discussing again Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship with the United States. The UN is in its third decade trying to eradicate colonialism from the world, because of the belief that it constitutes a threat to world peace. Since this date is a week later than usual, our committee decided to have 2 protests this year.

    On the Monday, June 16, 2014, the day after Fathers’ Day, we will have our first protest in the park across from the UN on 46th Street and First Avenue from 8 AM to 6 PM to show the world that we too believe that colonialism is a crime against humanity. On the same day of the hearing, Monday June 23, we will have the second one. We will have a press conference in New York City to inform the public of the latest details of these event. We will need as many people at the protest as possible to make the government of the United States (US) comply with the 32 UN resolutions asking the US to decolonize immediately Puerto Rico. After this many resolutions, it is obvious that the US does not want to.

    President Obama recently showed the government of the United States’ hypocrisy about human rights. In his memorial ceremony speech, he had only praise for Nelson Mandela. He, however, has refused, despite the enormous pressure from Puerto Rico and the rest of the world, to release from prison Oscar López Rivera who is doing exactly what Mandela did. Oscar has already spent 6 more years in prison than the 27 that Mandela served. The US is happy when other countries decolonize their colonies, but the US wants to keep hers. What kind of democracy is this? Obviously, those who have colonies don’t believe in justice for all.

    Please tell your friends about this important protest for Oscar López Rivera’s release from prison, and to achieve what he has spent his life on, the decolonization of Puerto Rico.

    We will have a sheet of paper so that whoever who wants to get involved in the planning of this yearly permanent event in New York City can provide us with your contact information. If you wish, you can also email me right now at

    We look forward to greeting old and new partners in our struggle to provide real justice for all!

    José M López Sierra
    Because, rights are not requested, they are demanded!