Puerto Rican Festival returns in person, celebrates richness of culture

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Jacqueline Cardenas

Puerto Rican Americans waved their flags as they drove past PR Fest.

The annual Puerto Rican Fest returns richer than ever to Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood with celebratory piña coladas, bomba dancing, alcapurrias and everything red, white and blue. After violence occurred at last year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, attendees enjoyed a vibrant peaceful weekend.

The festival was held Thursday June 9 through Sunday June 12, bringing in Puerto Rican culture and pride in person without restrictions after two years of the ongoing pandemic. This year, ticket prices increased due to budget concerns, according to Puerto Rican Festival committee members.  Visitors  had to pay $10 dollars to enter this year’s festival. In 2018 ticket prices were $2 dollars and in 2019 they were $5 dollars according to a 2021 Paseo Podcast episode with members of the Puerto Rican Festival committee.

Puerto Rican artist, owner of Nola Taíno and DePaul alumna Erica Perez was excited to finally be back and share her culture through her art. She said a lot of her inspiration comes from her Taíno roots — the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida and bomba dancers.

“Dance and music is what inspires most of my stuff and that’s where I want to continue to lead, ” Perez said. 

Her artwork is mostly made from reclaimed wood, ranging from wine caddies, earrings, painting cut outs and even propagation tubes made from leftover benches. 

The festival is a way for Perez and many other Puerto Ricans to embrace their roots even though they are away from the island.

“I connect a lot to the island every time I go there,” Perez said. “I cry when I leave.”

Despite the distance, solidarity was visible across the park as many wore a black and white version of the Puerto Rican flag, including Perez.

The flag is known as the resistance flag and was a response to the Obama administration passing the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in 2016 which gave the United States financial control over Puerto Rico according to USA Today. Critics viewed this as an act of colonialism because the board was composed of people who did not live nor were elected in Puerto Rico.

The flag is now often used as a symbol of resistance and grief according to USA Today.

“The black Puerto Rican flag is a representation of resistance of the political people on the island,” Perez said. “It unites us here you know, we’re so far away and so I feel like anytime I see someone wearing it here, like no, I’m with my people.” 

For Angelica Torres, the festival was a way to celebrate her culture but also make some money as she chopped up pieces of ice and pineapple in a blender to serve guests piña colada drinks. 

She has been coming to the festival for around eight years now and after not attending for two years, being back “feels amazing.”

While she multitasked taking orders and making drinks, Torres reflects on her Puerto Rican heritage. 

“We have a great culture, great food, great drinks, and an amazing island,” she said. 

The festival encapsulated more than art and delicious drinks; it was also a place where medical clinics like CALOR could educate the Humboldt Park community about STIs. CALOR provided free HIV testing at the festival. 

CALOR program manager Alfredo Flores said it felt appropriate to attend the festival because organizations like them are not typically present at events like these. 

“It’s a way to access individuals,” Flores said, “It’s really important to also help educate individuals at festivals who might not know their status and want to know about HIV.”  

Over the past week Flores said they were able to test over 300 people. This was a “big first” according to Flores because of the high stigma around HIV. 

For CALOR, part of destigmatizing HIV in the Latinx community is creating a welcoming environment. Outside their tent were pride flags and representatives dancing to reggaeton music. 

Flores said people often approach the CALOR tent quietly, but once they enter their space and see them dancing, “they’re like, ‘oh my god,’ that’s my people.” 

Visitors like Noelani Sanchez said she felt safe at this year’s festival despite the neighborhood’s struggle with gun violence in previous years. There have been nine homicides and 29 shootings in the 26th Ward according to Block Club’s analysis on Chicago Police Department data.

“I personally have never felt unsafe,” Sanchez said. “I always feel pretty secure, everyone is friendly and just happy to be there. I haven’t had a bad experience myself.”

Festival goers share a laugh with a bartender as they await their drinks. (Jacqueline Cardenas)

Executive director of the Puerto Rican Festival Carlos Jiménes Flores said in the episode the reason for the ticket price uptick is because of budget issues.

“The problem is we have no budget.” Flores said  in 2021. “We have no budget, we have no home.”

Flores said that he and the other committee members have a lot of ideas they wish to implement but they struggle to do so because of lack of money. 

“I know that people are gonna feel some type of way with us charging at the gate, but there is no other way to raise money for next year,” Flores said in 2021. 

Flores explained the ticket money collected at the door will be going back to the Humboldt Park community. 

“The money that we get not only are web generating resources and connecting the community with so many different outlets for positivity so we can impact the negativity that’s going on in our neighborhoods,” Jiménes said in 2021. “That’s the only way to battle the violence and the poverty and the lack of education.” 

The Agenda of Chicago and the Puerto Rican Festival of Chicago did not respond to comments about safety and ticket prices in time for publication. 

Hundreds of people attended the festival over the weekend. Although the festival was open to everyone, Puerto Rican culture was at the center. People were able to learn about the culture up close through the fresh food, live music and authentic vendors. 

Perez said that they hope attendees leave the festival with a newfound appreciation for the culture. 

“I hope that they’re inspired to try new things and go different ways and also respect their culture as well,” Perez said.