By: Karina N. González
Economic forces test the resilience of communities to withstand and, more importantly, prosper through challenging times. Sunset Park, a community known in Brooklyn for its working class origins, is up for the challenge. The storied history of Sunset Park is one of successive waves of immigrants adding to the vibrancy of the New York City community, from the Norwegians who once worked the harbors in the 1800s, to the many Latinos and Asians who now call it home.
Dennis Flores, a lifelong resident of Sunset Park, is an activist who works to amplify the voices of the residents whose concerns, too often, go ignored. His approach to organizing this Brooklyn community echoes Saul Alinsky’s work as a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago. Flores, born and raised in Sunset to Puerto Rican parents, understands that the journey to establish a community – where residents are unafraid to challenge any hindrance to achieve a meaningful quality of life – begins inauspiciously with a single step.
For Flores, the journey would never have taken place had it not been for his parents who, along with hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, migrated to the United States in hopes of finding the economic sustenance left wanting in their querida isla. This reality of Puerto Ricans living in the diaspora is evident in Sunset Park, where they constitute the highest percentage of Latinos living in the largely industrial community. Dennis Flores spoke about the history of the community, his beginnings as a social justice advocate, and his involvement in establishing the first annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in Sunset Park in 30 years.
“My father came to Sunset in the 1950s with his parents & they migrated from Río Piedras, from the caserio Manuel A. Perez. He came here when he was 13 & my mom came here in the 70s – this is when they met,” shared Flores. The Boricuas in Sunset Park resided in areas from Third Avenue down, while the areas above Third Avenue were populated by the Irish, Italians, & the Finnish. However, during the 70s, Puerto Ricans began to dominate Sunset Park.
With the surge of Puerto Ricans migrating to Brooklyn, many faced discrimination by local police. Flores first became involved in the social justice movement in 1994 through his advocacy for prisoners’ rights and opposition to police brutality. “I started photographing our encounters with the police. I would have a tape recorder in one hand and a 35mm SLR in the other. Throughout the years, it became a tool to organize. It was really about using the camera to survive, to deal with these encounters with police.”
Dennis Flores, the founder of El Grito de Sunset Park, a grassroots police watchdog organization, said the prevalence of police brutality in Sunset Park is chiefly responsible for giving rise to this organization. Repeated incidences of police brutality, spurred on by the attempts of community residents to celebrate their culture through a local Puerto Rican Day parade, is what set off El Grito. “We call it El Grito because it was an uprising – un grito es un levantamiento, un pueblo que se levanta contra una injusticia.” Considering the history of Sunset Park, it is only natural that the Boricuas of this community desire to celebrate their own Puerto Rican Day Parade during the month of June. Flores claims that police officers have a history of behaving aggressively and disrespectfully towards residents in Sunset.
However, the community remained undeterred despite aggressive intimidation tactics by the NYPD. “It’s been a community fight to have the parade. We weren’t handed the permit. This wasn’t something given to us – it was something that was fought for tooth and nail in the street and in the courts.” After many years of advocacy, Flores was finally granted a permit and the parade took place on June 14th, 2015. Although the organization has garnered media attention as a result of residents putting pressure on the local officials and administration over policing and police brutality, Flores credits the success of the parade to the cohesive and communal effort in Sunset. “Everyone we got to help organize this – the old school OG rebel bikers, local artists, car clubs, everybody from la calle to the mom & pop shops & bodegas – these are the folks who helped put money in the pot to make this parade happen.”
During the interview, Flores emphasized the importance of collectivism in movement building. “It takes a body, a group of people to watch over each other and document what’s going on. This has to be done as a collective.” Flores believes social movements should be the incarnation of Frantz Fanon’s theories based on his memorable book, The Wretched of the Earth. Like Fanon, Flores understands that the poor and the marginalized must become part of a constituency, a collective unit advocating fundamental changes to the status quo. It is through collective resistance that such changes can occur. Without their presence, the nexus formed of self-serving political officials and their co-conspirators, non-profit organizations, will become too formidable to successfully challenge.
Flores has observed over the years how local elected officials, such as City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, work to diffuse the energy of this largely working-class community by galvanizing a force to counterbalance the success of El Grito de Sunset Park. Now, more than ever, residents need to speak up and have their voice heard against the gentrification of this culturally diverse community. The community-based activism and collectivism in Sunset Park serves as a model for other communities in Brooklyn and throughout the nation in the fight against gentrification and police brutality.
This is the social context that makes this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade in Sunset Park a potent political symbol for residents of the storied community. According to Flores, the realization and success of the Puerto Rican Day Parade of 2015 was the result of many years of advocacy accomplished through the strenuous and inspirational efforts of the resilient residents of Sunset. “Historically, Puerto Ricans opened the door in NYC for other Latinos. But sadly it feels like we’ve been forgotten. We’re calling on our Latin American allies to stand with us, not just on a local level, but nationwide & in Puerto Rico. In this community, we’ve been leading the way.”
More photos from the First Annual Puerto Rican Day Parade of Sunset Park, courtesy of Dennis Flores:
Karina N. González was born in the Bronx, NY and raised in New Jersey. She spent most of her summers with her grandmother in Vega Baja, PR, where she cultivated her love for Puerto Rican culture. Karina previously attended la Universidad de Puerto Rico-Recinto Mayagüez, and Fashion Institute of Technology, where she earned a degree in Textile/Surface Design. Currently, Karina lives in Brooklyn, NY (although her second home is Aguadilla, PR) and is pursuing her graduate studies in Speech-Language Pathology at Brooklyn College.