From San Juan, With Love
Sporting a fedora and bright red button down, Carlos Juan glided across the stage, lifting the microphone to his lips as a flourish of strings and shaking güicharos filled the air. Behind him, band members tapped their feet to the rhythm. A pocket-sized Puerto Rican flag winked out from the left side of his shirt.
“Uno más?” he asked the audience.
A loud cheer went up from the crowd, a sea of Puerto Rican flags large and small gliding through the air.
“Uno más,” he repeated, this time a statement.
Saturday afternoon, Carlos el Lunatico y Su Grupo Tipico was one of several bands to welcome the second annual Festival Puertorriqueño de New Haven to the New Haven Green. Hosted by Puerto Ricans United, (PRU) the eight hour celebration drew over 12,000 attendees.
PRU President Joe Rodriguez said that turnout was larger in part because of Hartford’s newly-absent Puerto Rican festival. It was cancelled this year due to budget cuts.
New Haven’s Festival Puertorriqueño is more resurrection than innovation, added Rodriguez. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, the city held semi-annual Puerto Rican festivals and parades to celebrate a rich, burgeoning population. The city has 25,000 Puerto Rican residents; the state has 300,000. But the last Puerto Rican parade in New Haven took place in 2009. Festivals in Bridgeport, New Britain, Meridan and Hartford have had to suffice since then.
In 2015, the all-volunteer PRU came together to resurrect a cultural celebration, hosting Fiestas Patronales last August. 10,000 turned out for that event, supporting the need for an annual festival. This year and last, the city signed on as a partner — meaning it donated its new city stage and several police for the day — but funding came from several corporate sponsors and individual donors. A vibrant backdrop was designed and installed by New Haven Independent reporter David Sepulveda and artists Lauren Wilson and her daughter Gracie, Leslie Roy, Addy Núñez, and Samara Santiago.
As protesters and white supremacists clashed violently in Charlottesville, New Haveners Puerto Rican and non Puerto Rican alike came out in force to celebrate their Boricua pride, and its resounding place in the city.
Decked out in sunglasses, mock pigtails, and a mesh jersey bearing the Puerto Rican flag, Fair Havener Madeleine Matos swayed to the beat, interviewing passers-by on Facebook live while shuffling her feet on the green's asphalt walkways. For the second year in a row, she had come out to the festival with Joanne Watkins, her neighbor on Quinnipiac Avenue.
“I was raised by Puerto Rican parents and wish I knew more about Puerto Rico,” she said. “This helps me feel like I do. With the music, the singers, the dancing … I love it. I love Puerto Rico.”
Walking through the green nearby with her daughters Caroline and Griselle, Grisellyz Álvarez (pictured below) agreed. A recent transplant from Puerto Rico, she speaks almost no English, and said events like the festival help her feel at home in the city.
“We are all connected to the same place here,” said Caroline as they pushed into the crowd, adjusting homemade blue headbands scrawled with the words “Puerto Rico.”
Watching their step — by 2 p.m., almost 4,000 filled the green — the three headed toward an assortment of food trucks and smaller carts, where lines were forming for empanadas, coconut and tamarind ice cream and small pastelas stuffed with ground meat.
Closer to the stage, Marisol Santiago was taking a break from dancing (bands and dance troupes played straight from 1 p.m. until about 9:30 that night) to sip a cold beverage with her daughter and boyfriend. A native of Puerto Rico who has lived in Danbury for decades, she heard about the event on social media, and decided to attend because Danbury does not currently offer anything comparable.
“I love it!” she said of her first impression of the festival. “The singing, the dancing … There are a lot of beautiful people here.”
In a fenced-off section close to the stage — surprisingly empty during the day, and packed by 7 p.m. — New Havener Andres Seda shook two maracas painted with the Puerto Rican flag and danced to the final song by Carlos el Lunatico y Su Grupo Tipico. The band’s “hillbilly music” was an acquired taste, he said, but one that made him feel like he was in exactly the right place.
Born in Puerto Rico, Seda said that he and his wife Vivian are plugged into festivals across Connecticut and New York, where she is from. While the food carts are an exciting addition, he said that he comes out for the music and the people-watching.
“We’re a multi-colored people,” he said, gesturing to his wife and brother on a nearby row of chairs. “But that’s the beauty of it, because we’re all Puerto Rican. We don’t care.”
“This music just brings out the best in everybody,” he added.
He wasn’t the only one grooving to the multicultural beat. “I’m feeling great about it,” said Rodriguez around 2 p.m., as the green began to fill up. “It all has to do with the community. If it’s a community that welcomes and embraces diversity, it’s a community that’s better off.”