Puerto Rico-like weather, hot and steamy, hovered over the New Haven Green Saturday where over 7,500 celebrants came out for Fiestas Patronales de New Haven, the rich blend of music, dance, food, flag waving, and cultural pride that marked the return of grand-scale celebrating by the greater Puerto Rican community in downtown New Haven.
The festival was organized by Puerto Ricans United (PRU), a new cultural group that put on the event with the help of the city, corporate sponsors, and many volunteers. It had been nearly 8 years since the traditional Puerto Rican parade and associated cultural festivities were part of the New Haven landscape.
Joseph Rodriguez, PRU co-founder and president, said the organization was pleased with the outcome of the event: “It’s a beautiful turn-out given the weather (actually 7 degrees hotter than Puerto Rico on Saturday) with a heat index that felt like 110, and being that it’s the first year, we couldn’t be prouder. We are looking forward to next year,” he said.
Mayor Toni Harp, with Puerto Rico’s flag in hand, greeted the crowd that covered a good portion of the lower green, saying that New Haven thinks of itself as “Festival City” and that this first Puerto Rican festival would not be the last. She invited folks back for the upcoming Opera Palooza (an evening of arias and apizza) on August 20, and to New Haven Jazz Festival on the green on Saturday, August 27.
In a sign of national pride, Puerto Rican flags were waved with abandon. From the smallest flags….
… to the largest, the message was the same: “We are proud to be Puerto Rican.”
In the lead up to the festival’s main attraction, the Grammy-nominated Plena Libre, a music group from Puerto Rico, a number of area Latino bands entertained, offering a wide variety of musical genres from salsa to the more contemporary reggaetón.
Some people chimed in with their own musical instruments.
Others kept the beat with their feet.
Appetites were attended to by vendor trucks selling traditional foods and drink, while others offered myriad forms of red, white, and blue cultural merchandise.
In the evening, bomba dancers from Movimiento Cultural of New Haven took to the stage.
Bomba dancing engages the barriles or bomba drummer in an exchange that is a kind of challenge based on a mutual connection. It is a spirited, beat-for-beat collaboration rooted in the Afro-Puerto Rican traditions of the island.
Just off stage, a large stage flat depicting El Morro, the landmark Spanish fort on the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, was the official photo booth provided by Bregamos Community Theater. Among the steady stream of those taking photo ops with their friends, one photographer held cell phone cameras in both hands.
Behind the photo booth, Lourdes Montalvo, director of constituent services-secretary of the state (left) and Nina Vazquez, volunteer for the Hispanic Federation, worked an information and registration booth, urging passersby to get registered in time for the upcoming presidential election.
Among those in the audience was New Haven’s Director of Arts, Culture, and Tourism Andy Wolf, who flashed a pair of peace signs.
Michelle Retamar of New Haven gave a hearty two thumbs up to the festival and the good time she was having.
During an extended period of sound-checking, a DJ busily played Latin music augmented with a number of curious sound effects. Event hosts rallied the audience with shouts of “Wepa!” (“All right, cool, yeah!”) until the the much anticipated group from Puerto Rico was ready to play.
The music of Plena Libre, with its percussive rhythms and punctuating brass section, filled the thick night air stretching across the New Haven Green, delighting all in attendance. It would be a fabulous end to a day-long festival of new beginnings.