LoisaidaFest 2014: Celebrating Community Pride Despite A Changing Neighborhood

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The Loisaida Festival, which took place this past May 24, has been an annual weekend attraction for New York’s Lower East Side community since 1987, and over 15,000 participants yearly. Taking place along Avenue C – renamed “Loisaida Avenue” in 1989 – the event is popular among local residents and attracts Puerto Ricans, other Latina/os, and anyone looking to experience good food, music, and art.

Loisaida street sign

Loisaida Avenue street sign (Photo by the author)

Of course, the festival now takes place in a rapidly changing community. The Puerto Rican population that gave birth to the very name “Loisaida,” and that constituted the majority of its population for many years, is now in decline due to a rising cost of living, including rent hikes, and an influx of new residents able to dish out the money for housing. In one word, the Lower East Side is changing because of gentrification.

La Respuesta magazine talked about this and other topics with festival attendees, and each spoke to its importance for the community.

Justina, a Puerto Rican resident of Loisaida, said the festival is very important because “[it] has been going on forever, so it’s like if it doesn’t go on, it’s not normal.”

Skyan, another Boricua resident, commented on its importance from a more personal angle. Her 15th birthday being the day after, she said, “it’s like a second celebration [and] it means a lot to me and makes me happy that everybody is getting together.”

Dancing in the streets of the LES

Dancing in the streets of the Loisaida (Photo: Shakti Castro)

Jesús, a longtime Puerto Rican resident of Loisaida enjoying the festival with his son, also named Jesús, and his family, reflected on the change in the community. “The neighborhood is very diverse now compared to what it used to be. Back in the days it was predominantly Puerto Rican, and you had a couple of Black and Dominicans, but now it’s very diverse.” Jesús, both father and son, said the festival was very special for the neighborhood. “I love it because I’m just a step away – it’s in my backyard,” said the father.

We also spoke with an out-of-state attendee. Denise, a Boricua from Springfield, Massachusetts with family living in the Lower East Side, said, “I thought it was very beautiful, very cultural – it was alive and just something to be a part of and be proud of as a Puerto Rican.”

East Harlem and Bronx artist and activist Zro Prophet, a founder of Puerto Rican punk band RICANSTRUCTION and one-time squatter in the Lower East Side, told us that he hopes the festival “continues to thrive, and that we continue to still have a presence in the city [that contributes to our] ongoing quest for liberation.“

Miguel Luciano Pimp my Piragua

Miguel Luciano’s “Pimp my Piragüa” (Photo: Shakti Castro)

The Loisaida Festival also saw the third demonstration by 33 Mujeres NYC x Oscar. An all-woman group committed to one protest every month until Puerto Rican patriot and U.S.-held political prisoner Oscar López Rivera is released, they also maintained an information and petitions table throughout the day.

We spoke with two of its members, each of which commented on the festival as the location for their activity. Iris, who could be seen leading chants and raising the overall energy level of the protestors during the 33-minute demonstration, said, “we did it here because this is a landmark for our community, Loisaida is Boricua – it’s like Little Puerto Rico in the Bronx, and El Barrio in Harlem.” 

Norma, another of the 33 Mujeres who moved to NYC some eight years ago from Puerto Rico, said, “this was once part of our neighborhood. We’re trying to keep our culture and heritage here in the Lower East Side.” Asked about the effectiveness of their protest, she said, “we’re doing different activities around the city, and being here was the right choice.”

33 Mujeres NYC

33 Mujeres NYC x Oscar, with Iris wearing shades (Photo by the author)

Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), a housing and economic justice organization serving the community since 1977, also had a presence in the festival. Maisha Morales, a Senior and Supportive Services Counselor for GOLES, said, “it was very important for us to be at this festival to do outreach in the community, especially because of the state of affordable and public housing.” She said that, by being at the festival, “we were able to reach out to folks who maybe can’t make it to our Avenue B office, and were able to get a large amount of people from the community, especially public housing residents, to enroll as members.”

In terms of the change of the neighborhood, Maisha told us, “I believe the festival is extremely important because it brings the community together, especially Puerto Ricans, the pioneers that came here and through struggle fought for affordable housing, and who are still struggling to hold onto this community.”

GOLES at LoisaidaFest

GOLES staff at their tent (Photo: Maisha Morales, second from right)

Members of another neighborhood organization, the Lower East Side Coalition for Housing Development, which has been active since 1968, were also excited about being present for the festival. Kim, who works with them, told us, “the festival has been around for so long, and it talks about the inclusion of folks that have been here for a long time.” Herself part of a Caribbean immigrant family hailing from Barbados, Kim commented on being present in the Puerto Rican inspired, and in many ways themed, event. “It was important for us because we do affordable housing in the Lower East Side, and since so many of our residents are of Puerto Rican or of Latino backgrounds, we definitely wanted to show that we support them, that we’re happy to be able to provide housing for them and all folks.”

This year’s Loisaida Festival, by many measures, was a popular success. It was the site of food, drink, art, music, conversation, protest, and more. Time will tell how the festival will continue to develop in the face of a changing neighborhood, and whether the festival, as a historic expression of Puerto Rican community pride and affirmation, will take part in maintaining the existence of the very spirit that gave birth to “Loisaida” in the first place.

Click here to view our photo album of the festival on Facebook.

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Andre Lee Muñiz

Andre Lee Muñiz is a Boricua born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. His family settled in the Brownsville-East New York section of Brooklyn in the late 1950s/ early 1960s from the Puerto Rican towns of Caguas and Añasco. As a public housing resident near Coney Island, Andre Lee attended local public schools and Kingsborough Community College. At KCC, he earned a minority student transfer scholarship to NYU, going on to earn a B.S. and M.A. degree, while also developing his interest in Puerto Rican history and culture.