Time to celebrate, Puerto Rican-style

OPINION

  • Onlookers watch the 2011 Puerto Rican parade in 2011.
Onlookers watch the 2011 Puerto Rican parade in 2011. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune…)
April 08, 2013|By Hector Luis Alamo Jr., @hectorluisalamo | For RedEye

Humboldt Park once again is ground zero for an epic clash between two factions, but the police won't be called in to keep the peace this time.

Now that the city's two Puerto Rican parades—the one at Grant Park and the one in Humboldt Park—have combined, the merger is creating a greater divide on Division Street than the one between North siders and South siders.

On one end, you have the traditionalists, mostly old-timers who think the older Puerto Rican Day Parade should stay at Grant Park. On the other, you have younger people, like me, who think the city's primary Puerto Rican parade should be where we live: Humboldt Park.

Humboldt Park, the neighborhood where I grew up, is the undisputed heart and soul of the Puerto Rican community. Division Street is locally known as "el Paseo Boricua" ("Puerto Rican Avenue"), and any greenhorn who's ventured west of Western might have noticed two not-so-subtle Puerto Rican flags straddling the street—one on each end of el Paseo. So if I were throwing a celebration of Chicago's Puerto Rican community, gee, I wonder where I'd put it.

Of course, one concern is the threat of violent crime. Humboldt Park has some of the highest levels of gun violence and drug-related crime in the city. But by enticing outsiders to visit Humboldt Park, a single parade goes a long way toward addressing some of the issues the neighborhood faces.

Drawing Chicagoans into a troubled area that many never have explored brings money and, more importantly, attention. Humboldt Park is depressed and dangerous because Chicago hasn't invested enough into it, not because Puerto Ricans live there.

Staging a fancy parade downtown sweeps everything under the rug. One day each year for the past 50 years, Chicago has extracted Puerto Rican culture from its dirty environment and placed it in a sterile setting. And every year, Humboldt Parkers have returned from the parade to the neighborhood to deal with the same crises, while the outsiders go home thinking, "Boy, those Puerto Ricans sure can dance."

Yet if outsiders actually came to Humboldt Park and saw the good, the bad and the ugly, they just might go home thinking, "Boy, the city really ought to invest in that neighborhood and its people."

Maybe I'm being naive and hopeful. I'm a 20-something, so what do you want? But I'm still holding on to the dream of one day seeing all of Chicago celebrate its Puerto Rican and Mexican communities in the same way we celebrate the city's Irish heritage.

I get that many outsiders are afraid to enter Humboldt Park. Heck, I know some Puerto Ricans who won't even drive through. But it's time to reclaim neighborhoods like this. No community should be off-limits to anyone.

Take it from a native son: Humboldt Park has improved in recent years. Sure, it's still has a ways to go, but places can change. Places do change. Look no further than Wicker Park, and Wrigleyville before that.

Condensing two Puerto Rican parades into one in Humboldt Park will turn out to be a good thing for the people who live in the neighborhood—and for those who don't.

Hector Luis Alamo Jr. is a RedEye special contributor.

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