Puerto Ricans to alderman: ‘Hands off our parade’

April 4, 2013

(WBEZ/Chip Mitchell)
Julio Cruz, a former officer of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee of Chicago, denounces a plan to combine two annual processions that have competed for decades.

A Chicago alderman’s plan to combine long-competing Puerto Rican Day parades is inflaming old passions in Humboldt Park, a Northwest Side neighborhood in which thousands of residents have ties to the Caribbean island.

“The plan to cancel our parade was done behind closed doors by a few individuals with personal interest,” said Julio Cruz, a former board member of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee of Chicago, which has held an annual procession downtown since 1965.

“ ‘Merging’ is the wrong term,” Cruz said. “Our parade was simply cancelled.”

Cruz joined two former committee presidents among some three-dozen supporters of the downtown parade at an angry news conference in the neighborhood Thursday afternoon. They slammed an agreement, announced Tuesday by Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th), to end that event and channel some of its resources into a lower-budget parade held since 1978 on West Division Street, a Humboldt Park thoroughfare.

Cruz disputed Maldonado’s claim that the downtown attendance had dwindled over the years. “The purpose of our parade downtown is to showcase our culture, our people, our achievement — our failures maybe — to the rest of the city, not just to our barrio here,” Cruz said.

The conflict runs deeper than parade-route preferences. Several backers of the downtown event, including former Congressional candidate Héctor Concepción, said they wanted nothing to do with the Humboldt Park parade because its main sponsor, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, promotes the island’s independence from the United States.

Concepción, a Republican who challenged U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Chicago) last year, called cultural center Executive Director José López a “communist” with a hidden agenda. Concepción, who has pushed for Puerto Rican statehood, said the parade conflict has “everything to do with the island’s status.”

Supporters of the downtown event, held in Grant Park, are also upset about control of the committee. In November, some of them filed a Cook County Circuit Court suit against the committee and its leaders after they extended the term of committee President Angel Medina to four years from two.

Biennial community elections for the president’s post have long sparked acrimony in Humboldt Park. The job is unpaid but prestigious. The president traditionally oversees the downtown parade, a nearly-week-long Humboldt Park carnival that leads up to it, a community center called Casa Puertorriqueña, and programs such as children’s karate and senior bingo. The winner also gets to hobnob with big-name politicians and represent the community on trips to New York, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Candidates typically spend thousands of dollars on radio advertising and accuse one another of everything from misuse of committee funds to gang affiliations.

Some neighborhood groups, including the cultural center and the Division Street Business Development Association, have pressed for an end to those elections. They have argued unsuccessfully for the president to be appointed by Humboldt Park nonprofit organizations.

On Tuesday, Maldonado and López predicted a combined parade in Humboldt Park would bring more people to the neighborhood and help its merchants.

Medina said holding the downtown parade cost roughly $45,000 a year. His committee and the cultural center have joined forces to contract with Chicago-based Special Events Management to run the Humboldt Park parade, planned for June 15 this year. The committee will retain control of the carnival, set for June 12-16.

Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him @ChipMitchell1 and connect with him through Facebook and LinkedIn.