Community Split Over Choice of Militant to Lead Puerto Rican Day Parade

From bodegas and restaurants across East Harlem, not to mention corporate headquarters, City Hall and Albany, the question of the moment is: What side are you on?

The answers are giving shape to the conflict over this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade. A celebration often trailed by disputes and mismanagement is now facing an uproar over the decision by organizers to honor a Puerto Rican militant, Oscar López Rivera. He was recently freed from prison after 35 years.

While some lionize Mr. López Rivera as a freedom fighter who waged a campaign for the island to break free from the United States, others condemn him as a terrorist who killed and maimed innocent people.

At Cuchifritos, a local anchor of Puerto Rican cuisine on East 116th Street, dozens of people like Enrique Maren streamed in to have a late lunch.

For Mr. Maren, a Brooklyn-born son of Puerto Rican parents, the decision to invite Mr. López Rivera elicits mixed emotions as he recalled injustices the island endured. At one point in the 20th century, displays of the Puerto Rican flag were illegal and English was the only language taught in its schools.

“Even though I’m Puerto Rican, I don’t think I can fully support what he did because he killed people to get his way,” Mr. Maren said. “But at the time he did it, there was still a lot of political oppression.”

However, he said he respected Mr. López Rivera’s commitment to the island’s freedom and he should still be allowed to march. “Just for the sake of the man, let him march because that’s what he’s fought all his life for,” Mr. Maren said.

Angel Paniagua came to the restaurant for some stuffed potato balls. Mr. Paniagua, the vice president of the Puerto Rican Coalition for a Better Community, held an opposing view. If it were up to him, the nationalist wouldn’t be honored at the parade.

A screen advertises the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Cuchifritos in Harlem's El Barrio., Cuchifritos is owned by Eddie Bello, 56, and is a landmark of traditional Puerto Rican food in Harlem. Adriana Loureiro Fernández/NYT Institute

“Puerto Rico deserves better,” Mr. Paniagua said.

The organizers announced in May that the 60th annual parade, scheduled for June 11, had designated Mr. López Rivera as its first National Freedom Hero, a title that would have him march at its head.

Mr. López Rivera was a member of the F.A.L.N., the Armed Forces of National Liberation, which was a radical group that sought Puerto Rican independence. It conducted a bombing campaign in the 1970s and ’80s, including the 1975 Fraunces Tavern attack in New York that killed four people and injured 60.

Though he was never charged with carrying out an attack, Mr. López Rivera was convicted of his activities with the group. The charges included the transportation of firearms and explosives, both with the intent to commit violent crimes. Mr. López Rivera has denied taking part in any attack that claimed people’s lives.

A flood of corporate sponsors like Goya, Coca-Cola, JetBlue and the New York Yankees have withdrawn their support. Four media organizations, including Univision and WNBC, withdrew from the parade as well.

“While we are saddened and disappointed by certain sponsors pulling out of our Parade, we respect their views and decision to do so,” the parade committee said in a statement. “Equally, we respect our parade’s mission and commitment to inclusiveness, and the responsibility of representing the broadest possible blend voices that make up the Puerto Rican community.”

For 20 years, Jorge Ayala, 53, has owned La Fonda Boricua, a Puerto Rican restaurant. "I'm proud of our culture, our way of protesting, of not conforming. We protest through music, through art," Mr. Ayala said. Adriana Loureiro Fernández/NYT Institute

Mr. López Rivera’s place of honor has also troubled and divided city and state political leaders. Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito say they plan to march. Ms. Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem and is Puerto Rican, has long called for the nationalist’s release.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo also said he would not attend but did not elaborate. His spokeswoman, Dani Lever, said: “The governor’s support and long-term affection for the Puerto Rican community remains unwavering. Unfortunately, he will not be marching in this year’s parade.”

Some are less troubled by Mr. López Rivera’s role in the parade. “I don’t view him as a terrorist,” Jorge Ayala said in an interview conducted in Spanish at the restaurant he manages, La Fonda Boricua. But he said he recognized the wide range of emotions stirred over the 74-year-old’s role in the event.

Mr. Paniagua, on the other hand, worries that the militant’s involvement will overshadow a celebration aimed at highlighting the rich contributions Puerto Ricans have made to American society.

Still, Mr. López Rivera’s involvement won’t keep Mr. Paniagua away. After all, the longtime parade attendee said, the Puerto Rican Day Parade is much larger than one man.

“Hopefully, this controversy will eventually pass and people recognize the contribution Puerto Ricans have made to the United States,” Mr. Paniagua said. “We fought in wars and gave our lives. We’re American citizens.”