NEW YORK – New York City's Puerto Rican Day Parade will take place Sunday amid a furor over one participant, a man who spent 35 years in prison for his involvement with group responsible for bombings that killed and maimed dozens in the 1970s and 1980s.
Corporate sponsors dropped out over the decision to grant honorary title of "National Freedom Hero" to Oscar Lopez Rivera, 74, a former member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN, a group that wanted independence for Puerto Rico. His sentence for seditious conspiracy was commuted by former President Barack Obama, and he was released last month.
Hispanic, gay and Asian societies of the police and fire departments won't march, nor will Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
It's the latest distraction for an event that ranks among New York's great celebrations of ethnic pride, but which has been clouded by controversy over the years.
A hero to thousands whose supporters include South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Lopez Rivera said last week he was turning down the honor and would instead attend "not as an honoree but as a humble Puerto Rican and grandfather," in part because the focus was too much on him and not enough on Puerto Rico.
But the move hasn't pacified critics.
Cuomo, for one, said he still wasn't marching with a "terrorist."
The Fire Department's Hispanic society president said it didn't matter; if Lopez Rivera was marching, they wouldn't. And corporate sponsors including JetBlue, Goya and AT&T said they'd stick with their decision to drop out. Other critics have included victims of FALN bombs, including a 1975 blast that killed four people at New York's Fraunces Tavern.
Protesters on both sides have said they would turn out Sunday. The debacle ensnared Mayor Bill de Blasio, who for weeks defended his decision to march but on Monday said he had been uncomfortable with it all along.
"Sometimes to get something done, you hold your tongue in public," the mayor said this week. "I'm very happy that Mr. Lopez Rivera has declined the honor. I don't think it should have been offered to him."
Organizers and supporters of Lopez Rivera say they are mystified by the furor.
Lopez Rivera, who was called a bomb maker at his trial but was never charged with any specific bombings, has denied participating in attacks that hurt anyone.
"When I say I don't have blood on my hands, I mean that. I don't have blood on my hands," he told WABC-TV on Thursday. "Life has mattered to me."
The parade runners have been criticized in the past for feting violent nationalists, although all with less backlash than the decision to honor Lopez Rivera.
The 2000 celebration was marred by a group of around two dozen male revelers who attacked dozens of women in Central Park, dousing them with water, ripping their clothes off and groping them.
And in 2014, the state attorney general found that a marketing and fundraising firm working with the parade had misappropriated $1 million. No one was charged criminally; a settlement was reached for $100,000. The board was overhauled.
"We've had our share of issues, like every major event," said Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, who became chairwoman of the nonprofit that runs the parade following the shake-up. "But the importance of the parade is not overshadowed by them."
The first parade marched in 1958, when it was barely legal to display the Puerto Rican flag on the island and the community faced mass discrimination. It has grown to a nationally televised spectacle with floats, dancers and a sea of flags on Fifth Avenue.
Robert Kennedy once marched. Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin attended, so did Hillary Clinton and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This year will feature U.S. Olympian Laurie Hernandez and salsa legend Gilberto Santa Rosa.
It has often been a venue to showcase the complicated history of the U.S. territory, currently mired in a recession for which many blame the U.S. government, partly because of the elimination of tax credits that many say led to the collapse of the island's manufacturing sector.
"There has always been a political element to this," Cortes-Vazquez said.
In that way, it is similar to the city's St. Patrick's Day Parade, which was once roiled by threatened boycotts over a decision to make an infamous Irish Republican Army supporter the grand marshal.
The 2000 Puerto Rican Day parade was dedicated to Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, who urged islanders to start an armed struggle for independence, and who in 1950 was convicted of inciting his followers to try to kill U.S. President Harry Truman.
Another past honoree was Lolita Lebron, who was part of the group of Puerto Rican radicals who entered the U.S. Capitol with pistols in 1954 and opened fire from an upstairs spectators' gallery onto the crowded floor of the House, firing nearly 30 shots and wounding five congressmen.
In 2010, organizers bestowed telenovela star Osvaldo Rios the title "International Godfather." But the actor had served three months for beating his girlfriend. Corporate sponsors dropped out of the parade then, too, and lawmakers threatened to boycott until Rios bowed out.