La Negra of Chicago’s Puerto Rican People’s Parade

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Leony Calderón, Coordinator of the Puerto Rican People's Parade in Chicago. Photo: Benjamin Rivera

Leony Calderón, Coordinator of the Puerto Rican People’s Parade in Chicago. Photo: Benjamin Rivera, La Respuesta

Today, thousands will participate in the annual Puerto Rican People’s Parade in the historic heart of our community. For Chicago Puerto Ricans, this is merely a time when we proclaim, with shouts of “¡Boricua!” from car windows and street sidewalks, our proud presence in the city. While we are not celebrating our independence day, like other ethnic communities, it almost seems like we are rehearsing for that time, one day soon to come. For many, that is simply the point. At the center of this euphoria indeed are radical acts of resistance for a resilient people who have transformed exile into a new Diaspora homeland. This will be clear as we take a close look at the parade’s origins and its coordinator, who for over twenty years have helped shape our community’s firm claim to Division Street.

“As we know, Puerto Rico is not independent, but we celebrate our culture, our history, our people on Division Street. [The parade] actually started from the 1977 riots” expresses Leony Calderón, 42, Coordinator of the Puerto Rican People’s Parade, with a mix of dignity and pleasure. “We staked a space here, so people can celebrate in the place in which they live”, she adds during our talk at her office in the 72 Block by Block Diabetes Empowerment Center at the corner of Division Street and California Avenue.

Even the space where we discuss the parade, her familial narrative, and political work speaks to the history of Puerto Ricans in Chicago. The center itself is a collaborative project of multiple organizations to combat health disparities in the Humboldt Park community, located in an affordable housing complex aptly named “La Estancia.” Down the block is one of the fifty foot Puerto Rican flag archways demarcating the business and cultural district of “Paseo Boricua,” which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. “This community has always been a part of me” affirms Calderón.

While Leony Calderón has lived on Division Street, between “the flags”, for a decade and in Humboldt Park for two, her life before then was one of constant flux. Like many puertorriqueña/os she traveled between Diaspora and homeland during her primary years – from Puerto Rico to New York to Chicago and back again. In 1988 she finally settled in Chicago after her mother died in Puerto Rico, leaving a brother and her in the care of their aunt on the city’s south side.

Even with the constant “va y ven” Humboldt Park was not foreign to her. With humility and nostalgia, Leony boasts that many of the neighborhood’s “old timers” know her through her mother, an open and caring negra who made her presence known to all. The “Corillo de Humboldt Park” even had a huge bembé in the local park when her uncle died. Soon, Leony herself would be someone people in the ‘hood would come to know and respect too.

As an adolescent, Puerto Ricanness was very important to Leony and took a strong political dimension. This she accredits also to her mother. As she recalls, her mother would get into fights with family over politics because she was “la más prieta de la casa and an independentista.”

“My mother taught me that you do not discriminate me because of my color, because I am a woman, because I’m Puerto Rican. She would also say that ‘Puerto Rico doesn’t belong to anybody but the Puerto Rican people.’”

While she states her mother didn’t attend events for Puerto Rico’s independence, this defiance to the social order – whether it be in the form of racism, colorism, sexism, or colonialism – sparked a curiosity in Leony to be a part of something greater than herself. Even as one of seven Boricua students in high school she made her presence known by helping to form the “Boricua Dance Group.” It was also there that she began a commitment to the Puerto Rican People’s Parade and Humboldt Park. Through a mentor who was active in the independence movement, Leony started attending the parade which was then coordinated by the recently deceased Josefina “Fifo” Rodríguez, mother of two now former political prisoners.

“I knew I was an independentista too [because of my mother] but I didn’t know what that meant. When I came to the community events [in Humboldt Park] it felt like home.”

1977 Division Street Riots in Humboldt Park, Chicago

1977 Division Street Riots in Humboldt Park, Chicago

The Puerto Rican People’s Parade or El Desfile del Pueblo started in 1978 as an organic community response to the 1977 Division Street Riots. Puerto Ricans have had community celebrations and parades to honor Puerto Rico’s patron saint San Juan Bautista, since the 1950s, with an official one in the city’s downtown in 1966. That was the same year of the first Puerto Rican riots, initiated by a police shooting of a Boricua youth and the mauling of another by their dogs. In local historiography this is the genesis of a Puerto Rican political consciousness in Chicago and the effort to build organic, Diaspora-centered institutions and leadership.

While many strides were made to improve the conditions of this colonial migrant population, by the ‘70s Boricuas were still faced with many of the same circumstances that led to the first riots. When police murdered two Boricua youth during the Humboldt Park celebrations after the downtown parade in 1977, our people again erupted in an insurgency. The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC), which still organizes El Desfile del Pueblo, decided to host a People’s Tribunal with the victim’s families to hold the police accountable (who were never prosecuted) and later a parade on Division Street as a way to protect their marginalized neighborhood. Some of the founders still remember the police snipers on rooftops ready to shoot-and-kill the radical marches chanting slogans for Puerto Rico’s independence and freedom for their political prisoners (then it was the “Nationalist Five” and later it was for the fifteen captured in 1981 and ‘83). It was not until 2002, when Leony started coordinating it, that the People’s Parade got an official city permit.

Nearly forty-years later, much has changed. The political soul of the parade still exists, but in a softer way. “The spirit of the People’s Parade is the responsibility of the community and the PRCC. Back then we had fifteen prisoners, now we have three. So we make sure the National Boricua Human Rights Network has a big presence. As the lead of the parade I make sure it continues and keeps it in people’s minds”, says Leony.

The parade is also a way to highlight the initiatives of the PRCC, which range from youth programs to AIDS awareness, to housing and LGBTQ issues. It got so large and popular that in 2013 the downtown parade, hosted by Casa Puertorriqueña, finally approached the PRCC for a combined “United Puerto Rican People’s Parade” that would take place only on Division Street. This happened for only two years until Casa, due to internal struggles, decided to stop having parades all together. Now El Desfile del Pueblo is the only Puerto Rican parade in the city.

Leony Calderón, Coordinator of the Puerto Rican People's Parade in Chicago. She is sitting in the 72 Block by Block Diabetes Empowerment Center. Photo: Benjamin Rivera

Leony Calderón, Coordinator of the Puerto Rican People’s Parade in Chicago. She is sitting in the 72 Block by Block Diabetes Empowerment Center. Photo: Benjamin Rivera, La Respuesta

The parade isn’t the only community transformation Leony has been a part of. Coordinating the parade has always been a volunteer effort! For over fifteen years her employment was in HIV prevention and outreach at the PRCC’s VIDA/SIDA program, founded in 1988.

“Back in the 1980’s and ‘90s AIDS was so stigmatized. At VIDA/SIDA we took HIV knowledge to a new level. I remember going to all the schools in the community to tell even 4th graders about HIV. I was very vocal about HIV. They use to call me the condom lady,” narrates Leony with a chuckle and a touch of sadness.

Leony was fifteen-years-old when she lost her mother to complications due to AIDS. She died at age thirty-eight. “My mom was a very outgoing person and shared everything with us, but not that. It took us by surprise.” Afterwards, she dedicated fifteen years – a period equal to the time she spent with her mother – to educating people on sexual health. By the time she was Interim Director, she felt that she had honored her mother enough and that “the community had moved away from that same stigma” by humanizing those living with HIV. She also affirms that working in such a field has helped her heal from the loss of her mother.

By 2005, she was dealing with her own health problems. She was pre-diabetic and had high blood-pressure. True to her essence, Leony saw her personal history as connected to community-needs and started a walking group of residents who wanted to improve their health outcomes. Soon this morphed into the “Muévete” dance aerobics class at the Humboldt Park Field House. So popular it became that they needed more space and a wider focus. When the 72 Block by Block opened up as a response to a study that revealed a high diabetes mortality rate among Puerto Ricans, she moved the class there and helped organize free pilates, zumba, and yoga classes. A decade later, she continues Muévete and works for the “Woman for Paseo” health program that services cis and trans Puerto Rican and Black women.

“Growing up I always said I wanted to be either a dancer or a teacher. I teach dance aerobics so I’m both. You always stick to what you love”, she says with laughter.

When asked what message she would give the Puerto Rican Diaspora, she had this to say: “Look into your Puerto Ricaness. Do not be afraid to explore and seek beyond what people say about us. Learn what it means to be Puerto Rican and of yourself, too. Never be afraid to speak out.”

While many know and hold dear the life and work of Leony Calderón, her modesty, to her satisfaction, keeps her profile low-key. However, we cannot afford to let our community titans, nor the origins and meaning of our celebrations, be lost to the abyss of history. Leony is a Black Boricua woman, bloomed in the experience of Diaspora, in all its pain and struggle. To know her is to get a glimpse of Chicago’s Puerto Rican experience. And to march on Division Street today is to proclaim, once again, a future where we truly honor and love all the members of our community.

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Xavi Burgos Peña

Xavi Burgos Peña is co-founder of La Respuesta magazine. He is a Boricua/ Dominicano of the Diaspora who has lived his life between New York City and Chicago. His professional experience is mostly in the area of community-building, including youth development, social marketing, and organizing against gentrification. His journalism credits include being editor and chief designer for Que Ondee Sola magazine, columnist for La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper, contributor to Gozamos magazine, and guest writer for Claridad newspaper in Puerto Rico. Contact: xavi@larespuestamedia.com 

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