Tag Archive | "Puerto Rico"

Bronx Puerto Rican Parade Embraces Diversity

A mural in Soundview that showcases the diversity of the Bronx. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Puerto Rican, was raised in the Soundview area of the borough. The piraguero depicted on her left, who sells Puerto Rican shaved ice, has flags from other countries on his cart.

The annual Bronx Puerto Rican Day Parade along the Grand Concourse will be filled with classic bomba dancers and bedazzled floats carrying pageant queens, as tradition has dictated for the last three decades. 

But this year, the Sept. 22 parade is expected to include a stronger than ever showing of the borough’s growing ethnic diversity.  The cultural medley is expected to showcase Falun Dafa Drum Dance Team, a Queens-based Chinese musical group that will be drumming alongside salsa music. Central Americans, led by local Guatemalan TV host Chapín, are expected to walk the route alongside African-American and Taíno Indian groups. 

The parade is the second-largest Puerto Rican parade in the United States, next only to Manhattan’s two million-strong event. 

“Being part of the parade makes me feel closer to Puerto Rico,” said Maribel Mercado, 45, this year’s parade president, who has been involved with parade planning for 12 years. But, she said, the drive to recruit groups like Dominicans, Ecuadoreans, Bangladeshis, Mexicans, African Americans and Chinese to the parade reflects the demographic realities in the Bronx.

Parade planners not only promote a unifying melting pot message, but it also helps boost parade attendance, which has been on the decline. Census data shows that the once-dominant Puerto Rican community has declined by 19%, from 338,000 in 1990 to 274,000 in 2017. Parade attendance has fallen suit. As recently as 2005, the parade drew around 50,000 attendees, according to police. This year, the police estimate 15,000 attendees.

Puerto Ricans have always had a strong presence in the Bronx, which is still the case, despite the declining numbers, said Juan Gonzalez, Puerto Rican journalist and author. “Some have left the city, some have moved upstate, some have retired to Puerto Rico and Florida,” said Gonzalez. 

Many work at key healthcare and educational organizations, such as Hostos Community College and Bronx Lebanon Hospital said Gonzalez. Puerto Ricans also dominate county politics. Three of the last four borough presidents have been Puerto Rican — though that might change as older politicians retire and newer communities mobilize politically. 

In many ways, the focus on multicultural participants is an extension of the founder’s original mission. A South Bronx math teacher from Salinas, Angel Luis Rosario, founded the event in 1987 as the first Puerto Rican parade in New York with the idea that any group—not just Puerto Ricans—should celebrate their identity. 

Mercado said that this year’s parade leadership worked to secure sponsorships from new organizations like  Havana Café, a well-known Cuban restaurant. 

Francisco Gonzalez, a former parade chairman who just retired, planned the event for 26 years and has witnessed the Bronx’s demographic changes firsthand. He is confident that new leadership will continue his work to honor the Puerto Rican community as well as to adapt to the changing Bronx.

“We are very proud to be Puerto Rican,” said Francisco Gonzalez, who spends part of the year in Yauco, his family’s mountain hometown in Puerto Rico. “But we follow the Puerto Rican belief that mi casa es su casa. We open our arms to celebrating differences.”

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A Boxing Gym Owner Fights to Keep His Culture Alive

If you walk into El Maestro Boxing Gym at 5 p.m. on a Monday, you might find the gym full of young men, battering away at the bags and shuffling around the ring to the metronome of the round-timer.

Come in on the right Saturday night though, and you might find that instead of fighters shadow-boxing inside the ring, there’s a bomba band, or a fiery patriotic Puerto Rican poetry reading. 

“Boxing is not enough,” gym founder Fernando Laspina said. Boxers can end up broke and brain damaged, Laspina said, and that’s why he designed El Maestro not just as a gym where neighborhood kids could learn to fight, but as a place where they could connect to Puerto Rican culture and history.

But after 16 years, Laspina’s community center is now under threat. His landlord has put the squat two-story building that houses El Maestro up for sale.  Laspina has lost locations and been forced to downsize before, he said, but yet another move could be disruptive to what he’s managed to build at 1300 Southern Boulevard.

 Akmicar Torres, 33, whose son Joseph trains at the gym, said it would be unthinkable to lose El Maestro. When he first walked into the gym to sign his son up for boxing classes, he was struck by the huge mural on one of the walls. It depicts a mix of Puerto Rican nationalist heroes and scenes from Taino folklore.

“It was like I was looking at a history book from my third grade in Puerto Rico,” Torres said. He described standing in front of the wall and explaining to his son Joseph, then 10-years-old, what their connection to this history was. 

For many in the Puerto Rican community in this corner of the Bronx, El Maestro is a little piece of the old country. 

“There’s no other place in New York that feels like home,” said Akmicar. “When I feel homesick, I go to El Maestro.” Four years after signing up Joseph, now 14, he’s a New York Junior Olympic Champion. His boxing lessons, Torres explained, take place entirely in Spanish. 

Laspina’s path hasn’t been a straight one. A “jibaro” from the mountains of Puerto Rico, he moved to the Bronx at fifteen and quickly became a target for schoolyard bullying. He joined The Savage Skulls, a notorious black and Puerto Rican street gang, for protection. Within a few years, he’d risen to the rank of regional leader in the South Bronx. Fighting quickly became a part of his life. “Everyone always said I was good with my hands,” he chuckled. 

But a two-year stint in prison for extortion made him rethink his priorities. He resolved to change. Prison proved to be a crash course in community organization, as he and other Spanish-speaking inmates had to band together and use their collective voices to, among other things, demand a bi-lingual chaplain.

Once out, he’d channeled the skills he’d learned as a prison-yard organizer into a career in grassroots community activism and outreach, helping to lead a campaign to keep Puerto Rican-founded Hostos Community College open. He enrolled in college, eventually earning a masters degree from Buffalo State University in Latin Studies. More than 40 years later, Laspina’s ties to his community go deep. He runs El Maestro and works as an extracurricular coordinator for the New York City Housing Authority. 

Rising rent prices have caused the gym to have to move before: they’ve had four locations in the past 16 years. But now, the possible sale of the building, coupled with the discussion of zoning changes along Morrisania’s Southern Boulevard has many community members worried about what this might mean for El Maestro

Yet another move could force them into a smaller space, less easily accessible by train than the current location, which is just down the block from the 2 and 5 stop at Freeman Ave. In turn, this could shrink the programs the gym is able to offer, and take away a critical linchpin in the cultural landscape of the neighborhood. “This gym keeps kids off the street and out of gangs, people come here who have messed up their lives and are trying to straighten out,” said 16-year-old boxer Firdaus Abdulai. “People take this place for granted, but it would be terrible if the gym got sold.” 

Fernando doesn’t seem worried though. The Bronx has changed a lot in the years since the gym was founded, and they have always managed to survive, and if that means finding another location, so be it. Instead of dwelling on the potential sale of the property, he’s thinking about ways to grow. He’d love to launch a tutoring program for the kids who come to the gym. “That’s the dream, to have a space with computers where the kids could come and do homework,” he said. For now though, he’s happy to listen to the thud of gloves against the heavy bag.

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Puerto Rico in East Tremont

Wanda and Nester Rentas opened Taino Mayor in 1980 on East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. After 20 years of selling merchandise straight from Puerto Rico, and serenading passersby with live music, it has come to be known as “Little Puerto Rico.”

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New birth certificate law for Puerto Ricans

Puerto Ricans in the Bronx are worried and confused about a new birth certificate law. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Like many Bronx Puerto Ricans, Nando Hernandez is worried about a new birth certificate law that could affect his mother, Maria. Photo: Yardena Schwartz

Maria Delia Hernandez suffers from failing kidneys, gout, high blood pressure, asthma and a chronic liver disease. In her apartment on the Grand Concourse, the 75-year-old lies in bed hooked up to the dialysis machine she depends on to do her kidneys’ work.

But Hernandez worries more about her latest ailment: the invalidation of her legal status in the United States.

Hernandez is joined in this predicament by more than 105,000 other native Puerto Ricans in the Bronx.

On Thursday, Sept. 30, all birth certificates issued by Puerto Rico before July 1 will become null and void. The Puerto Rican government announced the new law in December 2009, in collaboration with the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security, to curb massive fraud and theft of Puerto Rican birth certificates.

Home to almost half of all island-born Puerto Ricans in New York City, the Bronx boasts one of the highest concentrations of Puerto Ricans outside of the island, according to the Department of City Planning.

A birth certificate from Puerto Rico is valuable property for Hispanic immigrants seeking a quick path to U.S. citizenship, and until now it has been quite easy to get.

Puerto Rico was unique in the way its birth certificates were used in the past, said Sarah Echols, spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. “Parents signing their kids up for school, Little League, church camps, anything part of daily life, had to turn over an original birth certificate,” said Echols. “I’ve heard stories where 10 to 12 original copies of one person’s birth certificate were floating around different organizations.”

This practice left certified original birth certificates sitting in largely unsecured offices, and criminals took advantage.

“There were cases of fraud rings breaking into schools, finding the files, and taking the birth certificates out to sell them on the black market,” Echols said.

According to federal officials, Puerto Rican birth certificates were selling illegally for up to $10,000 a piece. The U.S. State Department discovered that 40 percent of the 8,000 cases of passport fraud it investigated were tied to Puerto Rican birth certificates.

The new law aims to combat fraud not only by requiring people to apply for the new birth certificate, which means those stolen birth certificates will no longer be valid; it also mandates that no agency can retain a copy of a person’s original birth certificate. People may have to show the document, or provide a photocopy, but the law prohibits anyone from having to hand over an original copy of his or her birth certificate for any reason.

But for elderly Puerto Ricans like Hernandez and others who no longer have the documents they need to comply, the law has become troubling.

Lisa Velez, 44, of Mott Haven, is still trying to figure out how her 65-year-old mother will get her new birth certificate. Her mother, Elba Caraballo can’t find her old birth certificate, and has never had a driver’s license or passport.

Velez didn’t know her mother needed a new birth certificate until the New York City Housing Authority asked for it in order to re-certify her public housing benefits. Velez is afraid her sick mother, who rarely leaves her apartment because of anxiety, will have to go to Puerto Rico in order to prove her citizenship there.

“I really don’t want her traveling, and I don’t do planes,” ” said Velez. “Not after 9/11.”

Critics say that many Puerto Ricans on the mainland, as they refer to the United States, have never heard about the law.

“The Puerto Rican government hasn’t done enough to communicate it to the Puerto Rican community here, so most of them know nothing about it,” said Ana Maldonado, chief operating officer at Promesa, a community development group that works with Puerto Ricans in the Bronx.

Hernandez found out about the law when she was contacted by a city housing representative, and she’s been in a panic ever since. She hasn’t seen her birth certificate in 10 years, and has forgotten her birth date and hometown, information she needs in order to apply for the new certificate.

Representatives of the Puerto Rican government insist they have done everything in their power to inform their citizens in New York about the new law.

“News reports are a result of our outreach,” said Luis Balzac, who heads the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration in New York. “We’ve done seminars, presentations, group meetings with nonprofits and elected officials to make sure the Puerto Rican community is aware of the benefits of this law.”

Originally the law stated that old birth certificates would become invalid on July 1, the same day people could start applying for the new one. That would have allowed no time for people or government agencies to prepare for the mass invalidation of their documents. Bowing to pressure from Hispanic advocacy groups, the law was amended in late June, extending the deadline through the end of September.

Some say that still isn’t enough time. “We should have until December,” said Maldonado, “and that extension should be accompanied by an aggressive communications campaign.”

There could be serious consequences for those who don’t know about the law, or who have trouble obtaining the new document.

“Many native Puerto Ricans without the new birth certificate could be denied social services, health care, public schooling, jobs, drivers licenses and public housing benefits,” said Maldonado. In an economy where finding a job is hard enough, not having a valid birth certificate is yet another barrier to employment.

Hernandez is afraid that she could lose the right to her Section 8 apartment, which she’s been living in for two decades.

“They keep bothering us to get the new certificate, but we can’t,” said her son, Louis Figueroa, 51.

Adding to this seemingly endless list of complications is that the Puerto Rican government has failed to send many law-abiding Puerto Rican citizens new birth certificates in time for their own deadline. Ivine Galarza, the district manager of Bronx Community Board 6, who was born in Puerto Rico, has been assisting locals in the application process through appointments in her office. She and the dozens of people she helped to fill out the application in early July are anxiously awaiting their new birth certificates more than two months later.

As the deadline approaches, “we’re starting to wonder what’s going on,” Galarza said. “People are scrambling because this piece of paper impacts almost every aspect of your life.”

As for Hernandez, these frustrations add stress to an already fragile life. Her son, Louis, appreciates the desire to protect his mother’s identity, but said, “The Puerto Rican government didn’t do their job, and now the poor and helpless are paying for it.”

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Rap In Time

Rap In Time


Big Punisher still looms large in the South Bronx. Photo: Alexander Besant

The history of rap music begins in the Bronx. Its neighborhoods are dotted with iconic sites of rap history such as 1520 Sedgwick Ave. where DJ Cool Herc first created the break-beat, or the infamous Forest Houses on 166th St. where Fat Joe grew up.

Add to that list the “Big Punisher” memorial mural on Rogers Place and 163rd St.  Though he died of heart failure over 10 years ago, the Grammy nominated Big Punisher, or “Pun” for short, still looms large in his native ‘hood on a wall that had special importance to him. In his days as a budding young rapper, Pun posed for a promo shot in front of the same wall which was decorated, at that time, with a cartoon of a Puerto Rican gangster carrying two guns.

Pun was a heavyweight in two ways. Literally, since some estimate that he weighed over 400 pounds, and musically, as the hip-hop giant of the late 1990s with hits like “Still Not a Player” and “It’s So Hard”.

The Bronx mural, painted by Tats Cru, a Bronx-based graffiti crew that knew Pun personally, was created on the day he died in 2000 to much fanfare and a bit of mishap. BG 183, one of the artists involved in creating the memorial said of the its inception in a recent interview with the Bronx Ink:

“We just decided to do this wall for Pun when he died. It was our choice because he was a friend.”

BG 183 remembered that it was one of the coldest days of the year but, despite the biting temperatures, fans and fellow rappers came out in droves to see the painting of the memorial.

“A lot of people heard we were painting the wall from Hot 97 [a hip-hop radio station in New York]. A lot of fans came down,” said BG 183, “Fat Joe and a lot of hip-hop artists came too. The whole place was like a mad house.”

After the mural was complete things turned sour. For some reason, the artists involved in painting were picked up by police one by one.

“The police saw that we were painting the wall and they called the owner and told her that there were kids painting illegal graffiti on the property,” BG 183 said. “Landlady decided to press charges. Boom! The police grabbed each one of us. Next thing you know we were there at the police station for five or six hours.”

The landlady eventually recognized the mural and its importance to the community and dropped the charges freeing the Tats Cru members. Tats Cru now tries to update the mural every year but they admit that it’s not always possible nor even desirable, especially if people in the community begin to like the new creation. The last rendition was updated in the spring and shows Big Punisher holding an iron mic with some of his most inspired  lyrics behind him:

“When I was young. I wasn’t always Big Pun. It wasn’t always this fun. Ayo I rose from the slums.”

Check out friend and fellow rapper Cuban Link discussing the wall here…

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