Puerto Rican Fest Brings The Beat

Lucy Gellman | August 14th, 2023

Puerto Rican Fest Brings The Beat

Boricua pride  |  Culture & Community  |  Dance  |  Festival Puertorriqueño  |  Music  |  Puerto Rico  |  Arts & Culture  |  Culinary Arts  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Puerto Ricans United, Inc.

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Top: Nino Segarra performs just a little after 6 p.m. Bottom: Students Marta Arroyo, Mark Morrison and Catiria Pedraza. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Nino Segarra approached the edge of the stage, his hips swaying as horns and piano swelled around him. A beat, and suddenly the lyrics to "Siempre Te Vas" were floating over the New Haven Green, giving it a signature salsa beat. On a nearby walkway, Catiria Pedraza and Mark Morrison linked hands and began to dance, a steady back and forth. Segarra belted over the brass, and they moved like clockwork to his voice. 

In every direction, bands of blue, white and red flapped in the air, closing in the miles between New Haven and San Juan. Dusk was falling, but it felt like the Green could keep dancing well into the night. 

Saturday afternoon marked the mellifluous return of the Puerto Rican Festival of New Haven (Festival Puertorriqueño de New Haven) to the New Haven Green, where afternoon rainstorms proved no match for nearly 10 hours of music, food, dancing and Boricua pride in the heart of the Elm City. The flagship event of Puerto Ricans United, Inc. (PRU), this year's festival took time to recognize both the breadth of "la Música de Puerto Rico" and celebrate a community's resilience, from a revived Miss Puerto Rico Pageant to Bomba fierce and fast enough to bring the sun out from behind the clouds. 

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Banderas and bubbles. 

Over the course of the day, over 10,000 people came out, according to organizers. They included new partners like Avelo Airlines and the Elm City Freddy Fixer Parade, as well as friends and families that make it a point to attend each year, rain or shine.  

Many, traveling in flag-festooned jeeps, motorcycles, and all manner of bandera-themed regalia, made the trek from as far as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, as well as Hartford, Waterbury, Meriden, Willamantic and New Britain. From backstage all the way to Chapel Street, that translated to hundreds of impromptu salsa lessons, boisterous family reunions, competitive domino matches and meals that lasted from pea-studded yellow rice and tender, fragrant pernil to arroz con dulce and polvorónes kissed with guava jam. 

"This is amazing!" said Joe Rodriguez, president of PRU's all-volunteer board of directors, as musicians cycled on and offstage behind him. "We had some early afternoon challenges because of the rain, but the sun is beaming and the crowd is picking up. We were a bit nervous with that first downpour, but people came back. They're eating and dancing. When you step back and take in what you're looking at, it's like, 'Woah.' And it's still early!"

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Movimiento Cultural. 

From the first heartbeat-like drums that blessed the space—where rain tried and failed to knock out the sound systems twice—the day centered that celebration. As an afternoon downpour gave way to island-like sunshine and humidity that matched, Carlos el Lunatico y Su Grupo Típico  and Movimiento Cultural Afro-Continental got the Green moving, one crackling with energy as the other channeled a history of creation and resistance. 

To hand drums, guitar and cuatro, Carlos el Lunatico frontman Carlos Juan took the mic, his red jersey visible from halfway across the Green. He crooned into the mic, gesturing wildly over the crowd, and it became nearly impossible not to move to the sound. Across the still-damp grass, parents began their first dances of the day with their children.

Couples linked hands; a few attendees danced from their seats and beneath flag-patterned tents and umbrellas, not yet ready to greet the sun. Onstage, the band leader did a spin between lyrics, and a cheer went up from hundreds of people already close to the action.   

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Top: Jennifer Rivera and her aunt, Elizabeth Lanzot. Bottom: Miss Puerto Rico of Greater New Haven Pageant Directors Anika Russell and Samary Polnett (at each end) with Miss Puerto Rico Court Member Johanelyz Arroyo. As a former winner of the pageant, Russell said she was proud to see the festival in full force Saturday. When she won at 16 years old, she was a sophomore at Hamden High School, and "I didn't feel seen." The pageant helped her overcome that.  

As they listened a few yards from the stage, Jennifer Rivera and her aunt, Elizabeth Lanzot, let the sound carry them to their first home of Loíza, nestled on the northeast coast of the island. The historic birthplace of Bomba y Plena, Loíza holds a very special place for both of them, they said—so much so that they repped it with bright, matching t-shirts that they'd picked up on one of many visits back to the island. 

When she and her family moved to New Haven decades ago, "it was hard," Rivera remembered. She was 13, and felt like she had a foot between two worlds. During that time, events like FLECHAS (Fiestas de Loíza en Connecticut en Honor al Apostol Santiago) helped her feel more at home. Now, she tries to make it back to the island twice a year—and never misses a Puerto Rican Festival in New Haven. It’s a family tradition: her brother Jhonathan now sits on PRU’s board.

"Being Puerto Rican and seeing people celebrate this outside of Puerto Rico means a lot," she said, unable to stay still as music swirled around her. "It feels amazing."

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Top: Joe Rodriguez of PRU and Tracey Joseph of the Elm City Freddy Fixer Parade, Inc. Bottom: Carlos Juan. When asked what brought the ECFFPC on as a partner, Joseph said she was proud to support. "I think that there's so much division that us supporting each other is just getting back to the basics," she said. 

Against blue and red banners that billowed in the wind, Movimiento's momentum was just picking up. To vocals and hammering barriles, New Haven Public Schools students Miriam Magalis Cruz and Johanelyz Arroyo swept onto the stage, both lifting their skirts as they turned, bowed to el primo, and began to move to the drums. Both recent competitors in the relaunched Miss Puerto Rico of Greater New Haven Cultural Pageant, they came ready to revel in Saturday's magic—and delivered when given the chance to dance along.   

As they moved, their footfalls became a call-and-response with the drums, careful and deliberate as they moved to the rhythm, gradually slowed, and then picked up to the sound once more. Kevin Diaz, who founded Movimiento in 2016 and has been teaching for almost three decades, was still beaming when he left the stage. 

"It feels marvelous," he said. "Did you notice how when we went up, the sun came out? That's a blessing. That's a blessing from our ancestors. This is music that comes from our hearts ... we pass it on from generation to generation." 

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Top: Proud mom Zeidy Cruz, Allen Araujo, Kelvia Cruz, and Miriam, Magalis Cruz. Bottom: Miss Junior Puerto Rico Alianys Ayala with her mom.

Cruz, who came Saturday with friends and family members, added that she felt proud to represent the island on her home turf—and perform "my rooted dance" of Bomba publicly for the first time ("it's just a feeling," she said of the dance, which has its roots in resistance and rebellion as well as the pain of the Afro-Caribbean slave trade). A rising senior at Wilbur Cross High School, she won the title of Miss Puerto Rico of Greater New Haven earlier this year, representing her family's hometown of Caguas. 

Five months into the title, she said, she feels a new and stronger connection with her heritage, from the Spanish she's picked up from family members to the parades at which she's proudly marched, a dazzling crown atop her curly chestnut hair. Her mom, Zeidy Cruz, said she was thrilled to be there Saturday, sharing Puerto Rican arts and culture with New Haven. 

"It means a lot to represent Puerto Rico," chimed in Miss Junior Puerto Rico Alianys Ayala, a rising seventh grader at Beecher School who had been standing nearby. "Growing up, I didn't know a ton about my culture, and now I'm proud to show people. I feel like not a lot of people didn't know [the history of Puerto Rico] before. Today—it's crazy! I've never seen so many flags get raised up like this." 

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Top: Junior Gonzalez and Juan Ocasio. Bottom: Food trucks gave attendees options that ranges from sweet to savory and everything in between. 

Around the Green, it seemed that the music never stopped. As Rika Swing prepared to take the stage, cousins Juan Ocasio and Junior Gonzalez kept the sound ringing with percussion instruments the family had brought from home. To the familiar, rough scrape of the güira from one uncle, the two folded in handheld panderos, walking as they played. 

Born on the island close to Ponce, Ocasio grew up in New Haven, and said he doesn't miss a chance to fête family, food and culture in a single place. After growing up with FLECHAS, he was sad when the festival disappeared for a number of years—and thrilled when PRU brought it back in 2016. Now, he makes it a point not to miss a moment of the festivities. 

Further back from the stage—to give them ample room for dancing—that was also true for Marisol Natal, a resident of Fair Haven for whom the festival doubles as an annual family reunion. Born in Utuado, Puerto Rico and raised in New Haven, she pointed out the different parts of the island that her family together represents, from Guayama to Fajardo. 

For her, the festival is tradition: she grew up attending the Fiestas de Loíza with her grandmother, who passed down the culture to her children and grandchildren. Now, that role of cultural steward is partly on her. 

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Top: Marisol Natal and José Sanchez dance salsa. Bottom: Goria Cruz and Meilani with a friend.

"Oh, wow. It means a lot," she said of being Puerto Rican in Connecticut. Beside her, her boyfriend José Sanchez cracked open a cooler and pulled out an ice cold bottle of water. Both kept their eye on a tent from Avelo Airlines, where they had entered a raffle to win free tickets. "It means you have the best of both worlds. It makes me proud that the organization [PRU] decided to do it here."  

Dancing to Rika Swing back at the stage, festival regular Goria Cruz lifted her infant daughter, Meilani, into the air so that she wouldn't miss a moment of the action. Growing up Puerto Rican in New Haven, she said, "it feels lovely" to have events like the festival, where she can celebrate her culture with thousands of people who are as proud as she is. 

As a mom, "it's very rewarding" to show her daughter the rich background that she comes from, she added. As if on cue, Meilani giggled, bursting into a smile that lit up her whole face.

Across the Green, a line of food trucks turned out everything from sizzling Papas Rellenas to piragua de crema and coco (Cruz, having waited all summer for it, finally found the non-alcoholic Piña colada of her dreams).

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Top: Orlando Santos Sr. of Latin Flavor. Bottom: Friends Amelia Cabezudo and Leslie Marcano.

As he served up chicken and beef empanadas, pork shoulder and yellow rice, stuffed plantains and potato balls crisped at the edges, Orlando Santos, Jr. took the time to look around, and remember how grateful he was to be in New Haven. 

One of the chefs behind Latin Flavor, Santos said that he doesn't often get to be be "amongst our people" at festivals: the food business is based in South Amboy, New Jersey, where there isn't a large Latino population. He now runs the business with his dad, Orlando Sr.—who was his first and most formative guide in the kitchen. For his family, which hails from Vega Baja, the Puerto Rican Festival always feels like home. 

That sense of being home radiated across the grass, alive in every step, every bite, every call and response of Yo Soy Boricua/Pa'que tu lo sepas!" As Rika Swing gave way to George LaMond, Chassity Ramirez waved a black-and-white version of the Puerto Rican flag, moving along as if she was dancing for the island's independence itself. By the time Nino Segarra was on the mic, hundreds of new faces had joined to dance, some finding their footing as others eased into the beat. 

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Top: Huertas and his wife, Kerumi. Bottom: Roman Urbina of Sol Taino Food Truck.  

As they mingled with fellow members of their Hartford-based salsa class, Morrison and Pedraza whipped out a few new moves, savoring the last hour or so of sunlight that the day would see. Morrison, who grew up in New Haven, said he loves the festival—he isn't Puerto Rican, but makes it a point to attend every year. While other members of the class had driven over an hour to attend, the festival is a hometown tradition that he doesn’t miss.     

"I feel great!" said Pedraza, whose family hails from San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico and includes New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Madeline Negrón. "I feel like I'm amongst family. This is my self-care." 

Onstage, Segarra conducted, side-stepped, shimmied and swirled as he sang, completely in his element even as the song ended and another began. Back on the walkway, dancers took a moment to rest. There was still an hour until Johnny Rivera closed out the night, and it appeared that they would stay for the performance. From a seat nearby, their instructor, Joseph Huertas, smiled and gave them a little, knowing nod. 

"It's in my heart," said Huertas, who has been dancing for over two decades, and teaches in Hartford and East Hartford twice a week. "It's something I can't live without. And I get huge appreciation for being able to share the culture, seeing the smiles across the faces, the joy.ӌ

For more from Saturday's festivities, watch the videos above. Learn more about Puerto Ricans United, Inc. on Facebook or at their website.