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Sponsors Back Out Of NYC Puerto Rican Day Parade Over Honoree


The Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City is huge. Millions of people gather each year in Manhattan, drape themselves in the island's red, white and blue flag and march as Salsa music fills the air.

Now this year's parade is on June 11, and it promises to be different. Organizers have chosen to honor a controversial Puerto Rican figure, and that's caused major sponsors and supporters to pull out of the parade. Joining us from Harlem to tell us more is Marlon Bishop of NPR's Latino USA. Hey, there Marlon.

MARLON BISHOP, BYLINE: How's it going?

CORNISH: So this parade draws upwards of a million people each year. What's its kind of cultural significance to the city?

BISHOP: The Puerto Rican Day Parade has been a huge part of the city's life for decades. It's a celebration of community that arrived in the city somewhat marginalized, you know, in the '50s and '60s. Not a lot of people know this, but the Puerto Rican flag was actually banned on the island at one point because it was considered subversive, you know, for nationalists who wanted to separate from the United States. And so, you know, in New York people found a place to wave their flag and to show pride in being Puerto Rican.

CORNISH: So speaking of subversive, the person that they're planning to honor this year is Oscar Lopez Rivera, and he's actually a pretty controversial figure. Can you talk about his background?

BISHOP: So Oscar Lopez Rivera, depending on who you speak with, is either a freedom fighter or he's a terrorist. He was a member of the FALN which means the national forces for national liberation. They were an armed clandestine group that fought for the liberation of Puerto Rico. They claimed responsibility for over 70 bombings in New York City and Chicago, including bombings that led to five deaths.

Now, Oscar Lopez Rivera was never connected directly to any of the bombings that led to deaths, but he was arrested by the FBI and charged with seditious conspiracy in connection to several bombings in the Chicago area. And he was imprisoned for over three decades.

CORNISH: So who are some of the companies that have said that they won't participate this year as a result?

BISHOP: Goya, the Yankees, AT&T, JetBlue are all companies that have announced that they are going to somehow be reducing their participation in the parade, whether it's cutting off ties or withdrawing funding.

CORNISH: So Rivera had been in prison for more than three decades. How have organizers defended their decision to honor him?

BISHOP: The organizers gave him a position called the national freedom hero which is a new honor that was created. And some people may ask why would this person be honored in the first place? And it's quite complicated because for a lot of people, he's seen as a sort of heroic figure, you know, people who are pro-independence. Organizers and supporters of Oscar Lopez Rivera in general often compare him to figures like Nelson Mandela.

They say that he was unjustly imprisoned for many years. They say he's a symbol of hope and for justice for Puerto Rico. For a lot of other Puerto Ricans, he's not necessarily seen as a hero, but there were a lot of people in Puerto Rico who opposed his imprisonment saying that he had been in jail long enough. He had served his time, but they're not in favor of him being honored as a hero.

CORNISH: What are the ramifications of this - I mean, for the parade, for the sponsors?

BISHOP: Well, certainly the removal of sponsors is going to affect the bottom line at the parade as a major event for the Puerto Rican community, you know, has been an opportunity for sponsors also to advertise to the community. However, there has been some talk among some people that maybe this is a good thing because the parade can go back to some of its grassroots, original support before it become as commercialized, you know, when it first began.

CORNISH: Marlon Bishop is with NPR's Latino USA. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BISHOP: Thank you, Audie.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: During this conversation, it was incorrectly said that FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) means "national forces for national liberation." In fact, it means "armed forces of national liberation."] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 25, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
During this conversation, it was incorrectly said that FALN (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional) means "national forces for national liberation." In fact, it means "armed forces of national liberation."
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