Geraldo Rivera: Viva Puerto Rico and the Madre of All Parades

It rained the year I was Grand Mariscal (Grand Marshal) of the big parade.

Wearing a top hat and tails, the big bold sash proclaiming my exalted position draped over my shoulder, I ignored the steady rain until the wind began gusting and the adoring crowds started running for cover.

Then I gathered my soaked mom and dad from the reviewing stand around 64th street and high-tailed it for the nearest cover.

It was back in the late 1970’s, and although I had been on television by then for almost a decade, this was my dad Cruz Rivera’s proudest moment; not the rain part, but the fact that his son was the focus of all that affection and respect from a community of at least two million of our closest friends and neighbors.

That is the best thing about the annual parade up New York’s Fifth Avenue, the feeling that everyone present is related, that regardless of social or economic circumstance we are all in it together.

St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus, Polish, Greek and Israeli Independence Day have a similar vibe, but forgive me for saying that none match what is now called the National Puerto Rican Parade for size of crowds, exuberance, color or chaos, good and bad.

There are floats, celebrities, clowns, gowned and bejeweled beauties, marching bands, and ranks of uniformed services. The folks made impromptu barbeques in adjacent Central Park, and following the parade usually continue the party when they get home to the Lower East Side, El Barrio, Brooklyn or the Bronx.

This Sunday will be the 54th edition of an event which has featured celebrities like Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin and the late, great Tito Puente as Grand Marshal.

Because this year’s parade celebrates Puerto Ricans and Higher Education, the honoree is Dr. Félix Matos-Rodríguez, the president of Hostos Community College (CUNY). Given the dismal statistics for Puerto Rican and other Latinos when it comes to education, the emphasis on the need for our youngsters to stay in school has never been more urgent.

This year will also honor Super Bowl Champion New York Giants' superstar wide receiver Victor Cruz, who will do his signature salsa dance as he marches up the avenue as Athlete of the Year.

This will be my 39th or 40th appearance at the parade. Put it this way: I’ve attended every one since 1968, except for those several occasions when I was either in Iraq, Afghanistan or some other unavoidable assignment. It is a duty, but also a privilege and honor, to love and be loved by the folks who have had my back since I was a wild-haired radical street lawyer for the Young Lords.

Typically, I walk and jog from curb to curb holding aloft two Puerto Rican flags shouting “Viva Puerto Rico” and singing “Que Bonita Bandera” along with the ebullient crowds. In front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I always pause to pay respects by kissing the cardinal’s ring, never once feeling awkward about being half-Jewish.

Beginning at 44th Street, for years the parade went all the way up to 86th Street. Now it ends at 79th, but that two miles is way far enough to finish drenched in sweat, hair disheveled, face and neck smeared with lipstick, because everything is super-sized about this parade; the hugs, kisses, back pats, high fives, even the heartfelt thanks given along the route to the hundreds of cops brought in to monitor the eruption of mostly positive emotion.

The 2000 edition of the parade was marred by widespread violence, but disruption on that scale hadn’t happened before and it hasn’t happened since.

Because marching in the parade is going back into a personal time machine, many of the hurried comments I get when plunging into the crowds on either side of the grand avenue relate back to those hazy, crazy days from 1968 to 1971 when the country was on fire and the community was struggling to find where we fit in the grand scheme of America’s then troubled urban mosaic.

In those days, the upscale apartments along Fifth Avenue were shuttered during the parade to avoid interference from the pulsing spectators. The buildings are still guarded by watchful doormen uneasy that the stately boulevard is hosting an event so democratic.

“Remember when we took over Lincoln Hospital,” an old timer will ask. “Remember when I met you with the Lords on 111th Street?” “Geraldito, your cousin Lily is the pastor of my church in the Bronx.”

Although most specific memories are lost in the fog of time, 1999, the year Tito Puente was Grand Marshal, was a personal favorite.

It was hot and humid; the white-haired King of Salsa Swing was in his late 70’s, but basking in the adulation. Baseball great Orlando Cepeda was telling everyone how proud he was to have just been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos was talking about Latino unity and New York Senator Chuck Schumer was bragging about how he got 82 percent of the Puerto Rican vote in the last election.

Then Jennifer Lopez showed up and the crowd really went nuts. At some early point, gorgeous Jennifer bailed, but we hombres plunged up the avenue, loving and being loved.