In my favorite photo of my parents, they’re sitting next to each other, looking directly at the camera, their cheeks slightly touching. My mom’s legs are crossed and slanted towards my dad. His left hand hangs gently over her knee as she rests hers on his stomach. They look comfortable and happy. Behind them is a bright Puerto Rican flag. Its red and white stripes fill the frame as my parents sit proudly in front of it. Part of the reason why I love this photo so much is because of where and when it was taken. It was shot by my uncle in his booth at the annual Puerto Rican festival sometime in the early 2000s. Growing up, the Annual Fiestas Puertorriqueñas was one of the few times a year I saw my parents allow themselves to exist fully in a space of joy, forgetting, at least momentarily, all that was bearing down on us.
This is one of the reasons why I always looked forward to the third Saturday in June. Like many other Puerto Rican families in Chicago, my family would pile into a car covered in flags and we’d head to Humboldt Park. There we’d meet up with my aunts and cousins and spend hours driving around the neighborhood, honking our horns at the sight of any Puerto Rican flag. My cousins, siblings, and I would hang out of the car windows shouting “Boricua!” over an orchestra of beeping. The streets would be lined with folks dressed head to toe in red, white, and blue. Salsa or Reggaeton would boom from each passing car. We’d make sure not to pass any Puerto Rican person without offering a shout or a wave or a smile first.
People from outside of the diaspora often ask if Puerto Rico is not an independent country, what do we celebrate every June. And in many ways, our celebrations in Chicago and throughout the diaspora are not unlike my parents in that booth 15 years ago: happy, proud, and alive. In other words, we celebrate our existence. We celebrate a collective understanding that the forces of white supremacy and colonialism that uprooted our families from the island to this cold city in the middle of the empire have not erased us and therefore have not won. That the underfunded schools, overpoliced neighborhoods, racial segregation, gentrification, and the state violence that we were met with here have not won either. That we will not exist passively, but instead as loud and as proud as we can. We celebrate our collective abilities to carve out homes for ourselves, even if temporarily, in places worlds away from the island—places like Humboldt Park, the Bronx, Orlando—without ever forgetting where we come from. We celebrate because independence doesn’t necessarily mean liberation and despite everything the United States has taken from Puerto Rico and its people, our joy will never be forfeited. We celebrate a culture so diverse, beautiful, and far-reaching. We celebrate ourselves.
I admit that I haven’t been to the Puerto Rican parade in years. I returned this year in hopes of finding a sense of joy and familiarity that only home can provide. A sense of grounding in these uncertain times we now find ourselves in.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at Paseo Boricua on Saturday evening or if I still belonged. A few blocks down Division Street I bumped into my cousin, Felix, who was standing in the street waving a large black and white resistance flag. He greeted me with a hug. We talked for a bit. I took his photo. We hugged again and then said goodbye. I kept moving down Division towards California, documenting folks smiling, laughing, and dancing. Folks shouting from open sunroofs and passenger windows, waving rainbow flags from cars with Black Lives Matter written on the sides.
Outside of Yauco’s Food & Liquor, I bumped into my dad’s longtime friend, Che. I lowered my mask so he would recognize me. He gave me a hug, I took his photo, and he told me “dios de bendiga” before leaving. Later in the evening, before the rain kicked us out, I spotted a group of people sitting perfectly in front of a JC Rivera mural. I asked to take their photo and they agreed. I took it, they approved, and I kept walking. Then one of the men in the group called me back over. He thanked me for the photo, told me he was proud of what I was doing, to keep taking photos of the community, and to be careful.
It saddens me to know how rapidly Humboldt Park is gentrifying. How Puerto Ricans who arrived in the neighborhood looking for home after being displaced from the island are now being displaced again. But even so, what I found on Saturday was something I always knew. That even with all of the violence aimed at us—whether it be by the state or by the class of gentrifiers bulldozing the community—our joy will never be forfeited. That we won’t be displaced easily. That every third Saturday in June we’ll fill the streets of Humboldt Park, shouting “Boricua!” from cars covered in flags over an orchestra of beeping. v
Justin Agrelo is a journalist from the Northwest Side of Chicago. He’s currently a Reporting Resident at City Bureau, covering housing and development.