By Alexandra Torrealba
New York, N.Y. – The sound of cowbells and congas rumbled one last time throughout the plaza surrounding Spanish Harlem’s La Marqueta on Saturday afternoon, as a crowd of more than 400 residents joined in celebration of the neighborhood’s final Multi-Cultural Festival of the season.
Live salsa music, ethnic foods and the comfort of familiar faces are just some of the reasons why residents came to La Placita, or ‘small plaza’, on 116th and Park Ave. every Saturday from June to September. Beginning at noon until 6 p.m., El Barrio natives Celia Ramirez and her uncle Albert Medina hosted a celebration of family, community and cultural heritage for the lively neighborhood where they were raised.
The festival’s final Saturday celebration of the season also marked the end of September, known as Hispanic Heritage Month.
Celia Ramirez, co-founder of East River North Renewal, organizes the festivals to keep cultural traditions alive. “Our original idea was to bring the island of Puerto Rico, food and culture, back to the Barrio,” she said. Although the neighborhood is predominantly Puerto Rican, the festivals are open to anyone, free of charge. “Music and food bring people together regardless of where you come from.”
Every Saturday, Ramirez invites artisans and food vendors directly from the community to set up tables for a donation of only $20. For the past seven years, she has encouraged community participation in her festivals, as she believes it gives them a sense of importance and belonging.
Sitting in a foldable chair behind a makeshift stand, Raymond Perez, 55, contributes to the festival’s cultural celebration by selling old folkloric Puerto Rican music at $5 for three CDs.
“These events help us invigorate the youth about their past, their heritage and our traditions, which are often times getting lost within all the changes that are happening in our neighborhood,” said Perez. “It gives us a sense of family, it gives us a sense of community and unity.”
Like many others at the festival, Perez commutes from the Bronx on Saturdays just to come to La Placita. “Everybody knows in my family, ‘Papa is not available on Saturdays. He’s at La Placita.’ This is where I am. I’m here with my friends, my family… this is my home.”
Savoring a plate of roasted pork and steamed yellow rice, Evelyn Rivera, 60, also said the celebration is worth the commute. “I don’t live here anymore, I live in the Bronx, but I still come because I feel like I am from here,” Rivera said. “This event brings the community together. Not only Puerto Ricans, but all the Latino communities in this neighborhood.”
In its early stages, the festivals attracted younger crowds from distinct cultural backgrounds. They also featured a wide variety of DJ music, from hip-hop to jazz. As the years progressed, it grew into a more predominantly Hispanic, elderly crowd, who became fascinated with live salsa bands like Los Hermanos de Leon, the musical stars of today’s closing event.
Swaying his body to the rhythm of the band’s trumpet, El Barrio resident Jesus Ruiz, 72, waved to an old friend. He said his favorite part of the festival is seeing people enjoy themselves and encountering familiar faces. “It allows people to relate to each other,” said Ruiz. “People who haven’t seen each other in a long time, this is where they meet.”
Perez agreed. “This is where a lot of people reconnect with their past and we want to keep that alive here.”
Street artist Vincent Dark has sold his paintings and photographs at every Saturday festival for six years. His prints are all cultural, featuring images of Puerto Rican hometowns as well as scenes from El Barrio. “Events like these are necessary, even essential,” he said. “If you don’t have something like this, how else is the next generation going to comprehend what we are all about?”
Several residents believe there should be more. The neighborhood lacks outdoor community social gatherings that encourage people to share and interact.
“There aren’t enough events like these in El Barrio,” Perez said. “We have a variety of Latinos: Caribbean, South and Central Americans. All our ethnic groups should have a place to celebrate who they are, their histories and their traditions, but I don’t think there are enough of these celebrations.”
The event’s location also carried historical significance and purpose. Held at the right in front of the underdeveloped and partially abandoned La Marqueta, Ramirez believes La Placita festivals are also an effort to revive this once-prosperous market.
“La Marqueta is a holding ground of El Barrio, it is a landmark to our people and everyone in East Harlem,” Ramirez said. “My events are bringing people back to El Barrio, and if we work together, we can open La Marqueta back. In unity, there is strength.
Ramirez is confident that the festivals will continue their success in the coming years, as many residents are even requesting her to plan similar events for the winter season.
“El Barrio is not a place where you live, El Barrio is a place that lives within you, and it lives within all of us that are here,” said Perez, as he looked into the dancing crowd. “I will be counting the days till next June, when we come back and do it again.”