LONSBERRY: City Should Embrace Puerto Rican Fest 'Caravana'

I’m a rural white guy who is almost 60 years old, doesn’t like to see any flag waved but the American flag, and I’ve tried and failed three separate times to learn Spanish.

Further, I think Dominican rice and beans are far superior to Puerto Rican rice and beans.

And for years I’ve rued the Rochester Puerto Rican festival after party, a sometimes violent parading through the streets of the northeast part of the city, replete with honking horns and squealing tires and a mosaic of Puerto Rican flags.

I’ve watched on the evening news as the police have had been pelted with rocks and bottles, and mayor after mayor and chief after chief have tried to figure out how to keep a lid on what looked like an annual celebration of lawlessness.

Almost 15 years ago, I called for the festival to be cancelled.

I’ve repeated that call more than once.

News crews got mobbed, property got damaged, people got hurt.

And all it did was get bigger.

One year, a reporter tweeted live coverage of the mayhem near North Clinton, bicycling from hot spot to hot spot, recounting what was going wrong where. The conduct disgusted me but the reporting impressed me.

So the next year, I went up there. Late on the Sunday afternoon of the last day of the Puerto Rican festival, I left my car in the Tops parking lot at Clinton and Upper Falls and walked north up Clinton, almost to Clifford, where, there being several hundred people gathered, I sat down on the curb near St. Michael’s Church to see what was going on.

A lot was going on.

Tricked out motorcycles were on display, there was music, there were children and grandmothers everywhere, and most everybody had a Puerto Rican flag.

After an hour or so of that, I got up and walked around. Over to Hudson, up almost to Norton, back down to Avenue D, over to Clinton, back and forth across some of the connector streets.

The evening came on and the sun set, and I kept walking around.

Watching, talking to people, buying food from street vendors, waving back at the honking cars with young people shouting greetings as they passed, meeting an awful lot of news-radio listeners, laughing with people clustered on the corners telling stories.

I saw some things that were against the law, and some that were unsafe. Mostly they had to do with vehicular and traffic issues, including people hanging out windows of vehicles, and motorcycles and ATVs burning rubber and doing wheelies in the street.

The police did have some trouble that night, but I did not see it, though I went looking for it.

Close to midnight I walked back down to the Tops lot and drove home.

I thought of that night today as I took an online survey. I think Rochester City Councilwoman Jackie Ortiz is behind it. It’s going to launch publicly later this week. It asks people their views on the “caravana” or festival that fills the streets after the Puerto Rican festival.

I said I liked it. That I saw it as a positive thing that builds community and reflects culture – not the culture of Puerto Rico, but the culture of that neighborhood of Rochester in this day and age.

I said on the survey that if they could find a way to take out the bad and keep the good, and if there could be partnership between the city and the people on this event, then this supposed annual headache could be a wonderful thing.

I’m not saying compromise what’s important – the law must be obeyed, and safety rules must be respected – but it seems like there ought to be a way to meet in the middle.

Again, no fighting with the police, no open marijuana, no damage of property or blocking of non-designated streets, no hanging dangerously out of cars. But an open-air, horn-honking celebration, even if it involves closing some streets, ought to be OK. People grilling in their front yards and walking around like they’re at a fair aren’t a bad thing.

And the after party isn’t a bad thing – if it can be safe and legal.

And hopefully that’s what Jackie Ortiz is after. Hopefully she is trying to show the community and City Hall that there is enough common interest to make this a partnership instead of a battle.

Because right now this is a battle City Hall is losing. They try to squash or throttle it year after year, and it’s gone on now for a full generation, getting bigger and bigger. It is a larger and more important annual event – based on number of participants – than the actual Puerto Rican festival. At some point, years ago, the city’s approach crossed over from protecting the community to suppressing the community.

And that’s not right.

It’s also no fun.

So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Whatever effort Jackie Ortiz is involved with, her colleagues on City Council should get on board and, in harmony with the mayor, figure out a way to make this stop being an embarrassment and start being an attraction.

Demographically, I am the last person who should like this. But I loved it. I was welcomed as an equal and neighbor, I saw people having good fun. Yes, we need to weed out the danger and the lawlessness. But we ought to embrace the joy and celebration.

That’s not political correctness. That’s fairness and common sense.

Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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