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Leadership shines as Puerto Rican Festival is restored

Yawu Miller | 7/27/2010, 9:01 p.m.
Puerto Rican Festival Treasurer Giovanna Negretti, President Reinelda “Chiqui” Rivera and Vice President Apolo Catala enjoy a moment...
Puerto Rican Festival Treasurer Giovanna Negretti, President Reinelda “Chiqui” Rivera and Vice President Apolo Catala enjoy a moment on stage during the festival. The trio helped restore the festival to a three-day celebration of Puerto Rican culture, food and music. Yawu Miller

Last weekend, Boston’s Puerto Rican Festival was back in force, with three days of salsa superstars, traditional Puerto Rican foods, customized cars, carnival rides and — of course — lots and lots of Puerto Rican flags.

“This feels like a re-birth, compared to what’s happened in recent years,” said attorney Apolo Catala, vice president of the festival.

In recent years, pressure from police and city officials and a struggling board left the Puerto Rican Festival whittled down to the Sunday parade, just three hours of music, no carnival rides and a low turnout.

The tide turned late last year when longtime community activist Reinelda “Chiqui” Rivera took the reins as president of the festival, along with Catala and Treasurer Giovanna Negretti, executive director of ¿Oiste?, a Latino political organization.

The board of last year’s festival had already worked to clear up debt incurred in previous years, according to Negretti.

“This couldn’t have happened if last year’s committee didn’t get the ball rolling,” she said. “They inherited a mess, but they passed on a festival that was free of debt.”

Catala credited City Councilor Chuck Turner with working to smooth things over between police, city officials, park abutters and the festival organizers.

 “When we didn’t have our traditional festival, it felt like we were going backwards as a community,” Catala said. “It felt like there was a void. We were determined not let that void open up again. We wanted a festival that everyone would look forward to participating in.”

Turnout for the parade was lighter than in recent years, but there was an important shift, according to Sandra Marcelino, who danced traditional Puerto Rican Bomba music in this year’s parade.

“This is the first year in a long time that it feels like there’s a push to get this going again,” she said.

This year, instead of just one madrina (godmother), the festival had 50, including U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, poet Maria Sanchez, community activist Carmen Pola and Vanessa Calderon Rosado, executive director of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción, the community development corporation that owns the Villa Victoria community development.

“We’re showing the leadership that’s in our community,” said madrina Janet Collazo, executive director of La Alianza Hispana. “It’s important, now more than ever with all the negative things people are expressing about Latinos. This is an opportunity for people to see the real face of the Latino community. We’re educators, lawyers, doctors. We’re people who are here to build a stronger community.”

While Collazo and other madrinas kept cool in the shade behind the stage, singers and emcees on the band stand chanted the familiar refrain, “Yo soy Boricua — pa que tu lo sepas,” (I’m Puerto Rican, just so you know). If attendees couldn’t pick up on the Spanish, the ubiquitous representations of the Puerto Rican flag provided a visual queue on tee shirts, tank tops, hats, jewelry and face paintings.

Chiqui Rivera, who chose to express her Puerto Rican pride with the island’s flag painted on each fingernail and wrought in the intricate beadwork of her earrings, noted that the carnival rides have become a traditional component of celebrations in Puerto Rico.

“We have fiestas patronales,” she said. “Every town has a patron saint. You give thanks by celebrating and having fun. Part of the celebration is carnival rides.”

This year’s headline acts included Paquito Acosta and Van Lester, who led a tribute band playing the music of salsa legend Hector Lavoe.

Sunday evening, Negretti stood on the stage and viewed the crowd of Puerto Rican flags that filled Franklin Park’s Playstead area.

“Someone next to me said, ‘we’re back,’” Negretti recalled Monday after the festival. “That sent chills down my spine.”