Sunday, August 7, 2016

After 47 Years, Rochester, NY's Puerto Rican Festival Continues to Exclude Other Latino Cultures



Rochester, NY's annual Puerto Rican Festival wrapped up this weekend.

This year, the festival, which is the longest running cultural festival in the city's history, celebrated its 47th anniversary.

For years I've written about how Rochester's Puerto Rican Festival is divisive, and excludes Latino cultures.

Except of course, Puerto Ricans.

I'm Latino and proud of it. 

My parents came from Cuba in 1968 with my brother, who was 6 years old.

After briefly settling in Miami, my family moved to Rochester, where I was born. 

As a Cuban-American in Rochester, a city with a large Puerto Rican population, I'm far removed from my Cuban roots and from my culture.

And I'm always left with a hunger to learn more about my Cuban heritage.

But that's hard to do considering I can't even get a decent Cuban sandwich in Rochester.

For a long time I have felt as if I was the only one who felt this way.

Removed and disconnected.

I mean, I realize the majority of the Latino population in Rochester is Puerto Rican-
and every summer they hold the Puerto Rican festival, but there are other Latino cultures in Rochester, including Dominicans, Mexicans, and yes, Cubans.

I've often wondered if every year, when Puerto Ricans proudly hang Puerto Rican flags from their cars, if any other Latinos who are not Puerto Ricans, feel like I do.

Left out.

Now don't get me wrong, I love Puerto Rican culture.

After all, I was raised in a predominantly Puerto Rican and African-American neighborhood.

I love Puerto Rican food.

My niece is half Puerto Rican.

It's safe to say I've soaked up a lot of Puerto Rican culture, and assimilated pretty well.

I've had no choice.

Even when I speak Spanish, I speak with a Puerto Rican twang instead of the typical Cuban "Que bola asere?"

So my issue is NOT with Rochester's Puerto Rican community.

My issue is with the organizers of Rochester's Puerto Rican Festival.

Ok, let me break it down.

I respect that Puerto Ricans were among the first Latinos to settle in Rochester, in the 1950's.

And again, I also understand that the Puerto Rican Festival is the longest-running festival in Rochester, having been founded in 1969. 

I get it.

However, I feel that after 47 years, Rochester's Puerto Rican Festival should have evolved and become more welcoming to ALL Latino cultures. 

Not just Puerto Ricans.

In fact, I've always said that the festival's very success requires it to not only expand, but also to be inclusive and welcoming to ALL Latino cultures.

Furtherrmore, like I've said for years, I think that the organizers of Rochester's Puerto Rican Festival could have also used the festival and its success to educate not only the larger community, but even Latinos themselves, about the diversity within our own individual cultures.

For example, as a Latino, I've always seen how 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.

And don't get me started on the disturbing and down right racist views which many Puerto Ricans have of African-Americans, which is extremely disturbing especially given the fact that like Cubans, Puerto Ricans have African heritage, and African blood running through their veins, whether they like it or not.

I've also encountered a misunderstanding 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, the biggest and most successful Latino festival in the country, and we could have very well called it "The Cuban Festival" but we 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. 

And here's something interesting.

For years, Rochester, NY's 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 public challenge to the Rochester Puerto Rican Festival board several years ago, in a Rochester Democrat and Chronicle newspaper editorial piece, in  which I wrote an essay pointing out that the festival is 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 the Puerto Rican Festival board instead decided to replace the word "Hispanic" with "Puerto Rican."

Now the Rochester, NY Puerto Rican Festival's mission statement reads: "To foster the celebration of the history and heritage of people of Puerto Rican descent." 

For years I've asked the Rochester 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've never received an answer from festival president Orlando Ortiz or his board members.


Rochester, NY Puerto Rican Festival President Orlando Ortiz

Therefore, as I have previously done over the past 10-plus years, I once again renew my challenge to Rochester's Puerto Rican Festival board.

In 2017, for the 48th anniversary of Rochester, NY's Puerto Rican Festival, change the name and make it the Rochester International Hispanic Festival.   

Enough with the segregation.

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