Bella Vida by Letty

Chicago’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in the 60’s

Last Friday on my weekly visit to my parents house the subject of old photos came up.  Enthusiastically, I began digging around closets in search of old boxes and bins. I hit the jackpot when I found these super cool photos of Chicago in the 60’s.  At first I thought my Pops had snapped these photos because he’s such a gadget junkie but it turns out its my Mom who is the historical documentarian.

Puerto Rican Day Parade Float Vintage Chicago

In 1968, about a year after my Mom moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico her cousins took her to see the Puerto Rican Day Parade in downtown Chicago.  It was an annual event the entire community looked forward to.  First a fabulous parade then more festivities at its conclusion in Humboldt Park with performances and music.

They are far from professional shots but they are a treasure because they do capture the enthusiasm and tangible excitement of the people present at this Puerto Rican cultural event.  Using her Kodak camera my Mom has captured 1960’s fashion trends, hairstyles and dress.

They also capture the wonderful multi-story brick architecture of the windy city as well as the businesses that occupied them; Lerner Shops, Karolls Men’s Wear & Woolworths.  Stores used eye-catching advertising of all sorts including filling windows with slogans in colorful neon lights.

Puerto Rican Day Parade Float Vintage Chicago

This is my favorite photo of the bunch for many reasons. First, because we have the American flag swaying in the breeze like a hand inviting this elegant procession forward.  The American flag is then greeted by this float sponsored by Comunidad Santa Maria, with the Puerto Rican Flag proudly exhibited under the words Amor y Paz (Love & Peace).  Second is the fact  there is a band playing live music.  I can imagine the Caribbean musical notes echoing loudly against the tall buildings carried away by the wind bringing swaying hips and smiles to caressed ears.  Lastly, it gives us a clear example of how Puerto Ricans have adapted or assimilated to American culture of the 1960’s in the dress of the beautiful ladies on the float.  The women attired in elegant long ball gowns holding bright blood-red roses, the perfect contrast to their matching white gloves.  Donning wigs in the hairdo of the time, the beehive, carefully balanced on their heads.

Puerto Rican Day Parade Float Vintage Chicago

On the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce float we have a handful of elegant ladies in long formal gowns of varying pastel shades with formal long white gloves.  Waving left and right looking like they belong in a beauty pageant. Especially the ones wearing crowns.

Puerto Rican Day Parade Float Vintage Chicago

The Confraternidad Cidrena float has even more beautiful young ladies in formal wear.  Only one woman gets to wear a crown on this float but they all  seem to really be enjoying themselves energetically waving to the crowd in every direction. One or two seem to be responding to someone they saw in the crowd.  Maybe a family member or friend.  (Cidra is a town located in Central Puerto Rico.)

Puerto Rican Day Parade Float Vintage Chicago

This two story float is sponsored by the Puerto Rican Union of Chicago.  It’s amazing how many young beautiful elegant women there are representing our culture.  Each wearing a slightly different gown with each head of hair perfectly groomed either with a ribbon or the perfect curls.  The queen of this float wears a red cape over her wide white skirted dress reminding me of a Puerto Rican folk bridal doll.

Puerto Rican Day Parade Float Vintage Chicago

In the next floats we have examples of the type of corporate sponsors who participated in the parade.  The name of the beer company is cut off in the photo but I can make out the Meister. I did find a reference to a Meister Brau Inc. a 1960’s Chicago brewery later purchased by Milwaukee based Miller Brewing Co.  The immense horses are beautifully adorned and expertly driven by a man in costume.

Puerto Rican Day Parade Float Vintage Chicago

This float says “El correo de Chicago celebra el dia de los Puertorriqueños.”  The worlds largest post office celebrates the day of Puerto Ricans.  Puerto Ricans are big business for the post office sending plenty of letters and care packages back and forth from the island.

A little history lesson . . .

  • Puerto Rico has been part of US territory since 1898. Notable migration from Puerto Rico to Chicago began in the 1940’s to fill jobs in various US industries.
  • The Puerto Rican Parade Committee is the oldest existing Puerto Rican organization in Chicago.
  • When the parade was founded in 1964 the celebration originally commemorated El Día de San Juan and was organized by Los Caballeros de San Juan, one of the first Puerto Rican religious and social organizations in Chicago. Los Caballeros de San Juan was a religious institution with the goal of promoting integration of Puerto Rican migrants into mainstream Chicago life.
  • El Día de San Juan celebrations was renamed to the Puerto Rican Parade in the year 1966.
  • It was during the first Puerto Rican Parade on June 12, 1966 that one of the first Puerto Rican riots in the U.S. began. The riot, one of many urban disturbances across the nation in the 1960s was in response to the shooting of a young Puerto Rican man by Chicago police.

I was a bit shocked at first when I read this but then not so much the event is placed within context of the period.  The 1960’s saw Rock n Roll, Hippies, the first Man on the Moon, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., war protests and the Civil Rights movement.

Arriving from a different country meant adapting to a new place, new customs and new people who did not understand that not everyone who spoke Spanish was Mexican or that speaking Spanish did not mean they were not American citizens.  Puerto Ricans in Chicago encountered racism in many forms;  having their rent raised so they could not afford to live in certain areas forcing moves to other neighborhoods, being charged higher prices at stores because they were not fluent in the language; racial profiling by police . . .

My take away . . .

I’ve read about the riots from various sources and have come to the conclusion that the riots came in response to years of racist abuse from police, politicians and other citizens upon the Puerto Rican community.  The murder of a young man by police was THE last straw. The riots mark a time in history for change. Young  Puerto Rican men and women fought back against armed police dressed in riot gear releasing trained attack dogs on them.  Racism and abuse of power would not be tolerated any longer.  The riots made it clear to police and local government change must happen.

More importantly these events brought to light the issues that needed addressing as well as the education that needed to be spread inspiring community activism and education programs.  One of the purposes of the parade as well as community organizations was to educate others about Puerto Rico, its American citizenship, culture, customs and bilingual people.  I’m in awe of the people who came together the next year and every year after that to continue the Puerto Rican parade cultural educational campaign.

Now 45 years after that first parade I can report Puerto Ricans are still seen in a negative light.   These are the consequences of denying a variety of faces, shapes, sizes and cultures to be seen on television, movies or even be mentioned in history books.  A vast majority of Americans don’t even know we are citizens.  Puerto Rico has been part of the United States for over a century contributing and building the America we live in today.

I know what I will do.  I will continue to write poetry and stories, create all kinds of art and share it with you and the entire world.  I will be a catalyst for change.

What you can do:

– Support your local community and local organizations.

– Address local issues where they matter, your local government.

 

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The following is a wonderful list of resources for more information on the Puerto Rican Day Parade as well as the history of Puerto Ricans in Chicago.

Encyclopedia of Chicago

Puerto Ricans in Chicago on Wikipedia

Paseo Boricua on Wikipedia

Spanish Action Committee of Chicago Historical Archives

Puerto Rican Parade on NBC Chicago

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Do you have any Puerto Rican day Parade photos?

If you do, I would LOVE for you to share them with me.

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