Sunday, August 20, 2006

Dominican Day Parade

It was the weekend of the Dominican Day parade in New York. I’d never been before, just because I don’t feel much attraction to the idea of being crushed in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people under the sun for hours on end. But I figured I ought to check it out before I leave. The parade itself wasn’t until Sunday, but the festivities started on Saturday in Washington Heights, where a couple of blocks of Amsterdam Avenue (from about 191 to 194) had been closed off to make way for food and vendor stalls and two stages, one at either end. The street’s topography worked pretty well for security purposes: a steep cliff rises up on the west side and another one drops straight down to the East River on the other side, so one could only enter at one of the ends where police had set up barriers and were checking bags. Mine passed muster so I went in.

The music hadn’t started yet, so I examined the booths (Interboro college, Chevrolet, Citibank, and Lemisol feminine wash were all represented) and the food offerings (there seemed, oddly, to be more Puerto Rican and Colombian restaurants represented than Dominican ones). I got myself a crabmeat empanada and a cheese-filled Colombian arepa, then a mango juice to round off the meal. There was a DJ at work but he didnt play any merengue tipico the whole time, mostly only merengue de orquesta and reggaeton. But eventually things started happening on stage. First, three girls barely in their teens wearing red tops and extremely short white skirts, dancing reggaeton rather well. After a few minutes they were joined by three slightly older girls in much more modest overalls. They were actually pretty good with the reggaeton-style rapping, though it’s not my favorite type of music. The second act was also girls singing reggaeton (is this a new New York Dominican thing?), but this time just a pair of them in camouflage outfits. As they performed some actual instruments were being set up behind them, and soon enough I saw that the guitar belonged to Edilio Paredes, a musician I’ve known for some time, known mostly for his bachata guitar work but also started playing accordion a few years back and is now very good on that too. He plays with a bunch of bands like Super Uba, but today was backing up some singer called “Nelson Maicky,” whoever that is. So even though I was kind of tired of the sun in my eyes, my perch on the edge of a metal traffic barrier, and the stupid wasp that seemed enamored of me and my sun block, I stuck around for a bit to see. But only for a little bit. There would be plenty more of this tomorrow, I was sure.

My old friend Alejandro, bass player for Aguakate, had informed me that his group would be performing on a float in the parade. He suggested I join up with them so as to avoid the madding crowds. This sounded like a good idea but there was some confusion about where and when they’d be meeting. After several rounds of phone calls, we got it all figured out and I went up to find them on 38th street, where the block between 5th and 6th avenues had been closed off to allow the floats, marchers, and all space in which to prepare themselves. On the way up, I bought a Dominican flag bandana to tie to a belt loop and show my spirit, and then found myself unexpectedly accompanied by several dozen teenagers in patriotic Dominican bandanas, t-shirts, and even the occasional umbrella hat. Several of them had guiras and one had a tambora, and they went along playing merengue rhythms and improvising rousing choruses. As they passed by one footwear store on 34th Street, one of the salesmen (apparently Dominican) came out and led them in a chant: “We got shoes! We got shoes!”

Up on 38th, I strolled around examining the offerings, which included floats for products like La Mazorca corn oil and Vitarroz rice, music companies like one for “Hip hop Dominican style,” and organizations like the Centro Civico (Dominican Civic Center) in Washington Heights. The Tamboril community organization for Dominican immigrants from that town near Santiago also had its own truck. Besides all the Dominican businesses and groups there was also a Mexican marching band and a big decorated Colombian bus with all kinds of sacks strapped on top as if it were about to make a long journey through some mountain towns, though with a bunch of Dominican flags stuck on the side for the occasion. Not on floats but getting into their costumes to work the parade route on foot were carnival groups representing Las Guloyas (a cocolo tradition), the city of La Vega and the town of Cabral, where I’d been for carnival just a few months before. I was surprised to recognize their cachua costumes and went over for a closer look. Imagine my surprise to find one of them was actually Temistocle, whose house I’d visited in order to purchase one of his homemade, multicolored whips. He’d come to New York for two weeks just for this occasion, teaching New York Dominican kids about the cachua tradition in the process. I also found another accordionist I knew, Fidel, was performing with his band on the Mazorca float. Good to see tipico would be well represented in the parade.

We had been told to be there at 12 noon, and to make this schedule the musicians of Aguakate had gone without any sleep at all. They’d been playing a gig in some other state - Connecticut? - and only arrived back in the city around 7 AM, then had to meet at Peligro’s store again at 10 AM. That was just about enough time to change clothes and eat. Fat lot of good it did - we spent three hours standing around, fueled only by the beer and rum some members had brought or purchased nearby. Members entertained themselves by improvising verses over their microphones to accompany the carnival percussion group composed of kids in custom airbrushed t-shirts featuring the likenesses of Dominican baseball players or else green plantains and the label “platano,” another word for Dominicans abroad. Some people strolling by stopped to get the autograph of or take pictures with Chino, Aguakate’s frontman. I took advantage of the moment to snap my own shot. But we were all glad when at last the floats began to move (though of course the driver had disappeared at that point and had to be located by making announcements over the float’s sound system).

No one was allowed on the float other than band members and the people representing the phone card company that sponsored it (girls in short tops and guys handing out free Aguakate t-shirts to the crowd). So I was relegated to walking alongside it with Peligro, his cousin, and assorted teenage rabblerousers sporting the official t-shirts and getting the crowd pumped up with their enthusiasm and antics. I hadn’t really expected to be IN the parade, but in fact I found it quite enjoyable for four blocks to walk along Sixth Avenue, right past Bryant Park, and smile at the thousands of flag-waving Dominicans. But at 42nd street the float made an unexpected right turn, allowing the Mexican marching band to move ahead of us up the avenue. I soon found out that we’d been pulled from the parade as one of those boys on the ground had resisted a police officer trying to pull him out, apparently not knowing he was a participant. He’d been handcuffed for this and the entire group pulled as a result. There was some talk about circling back around and rejoining the parade where we’d started, but this never happened, and when we came back around to Sixth Ave the whole thing had already passed, leaving only streets full of trash and streetsweeping machines. Peligro, his cousin, some of the troublemakers, and I then passed an inordinate amount of time wandering around midtown Manhattan trying to reunite with the band, which eventually we did, over on Eighth Ave where they had just gone ahead and started dismantling the float covered in green, white, and yellow streamers. Alejandro said, “this is why I hired someone else to play in my place in last year’s parade.” But I was still glad I’d gone.

Aguakate still had three more gigs to play that day before they could sleep. I decided to accompany them to the next, which was up on Amsterdam and 191st, where I’d been the day before. I hung out with them and the other bands backstage before they went on, avoiding the crowds, much larger and crazier than the day before, then went around front to film while they were on. Chino got a little political, commenting unfavorably on the new law enacted by DR President Leonel Fernandez a couple of weeks ago, which prohibits nightclubs from having live music after midnight and weekdays and after 2 AM on weekends. I, on the other hand, was more than a little in favor of this measure, which will make my fieldwork much easier next year!

I expected to be able to return to my Upper West Side digs quickly, as it was really only ten stops away on the 1 train. But I hadn’t seen the crowds wandering the streets of Washington Heights in celebration of Dominican pride. The police had blocked off Amsterdam so effectively that there was a huge pedestrian traffic jam at the 190th street exit from the festival, since only a trickle of people could get through the single-file opening they’d left. Once I made it through that, I had to walk over to Broadway through masses of people, many of them enjoying the antics of passers by from the comfort of lawn chairs they’d lined up along the sidewalks in front of their apartment buildings. Getting into the elevator down to the train platform and them moving along that platform was no picnic, either. Eventually I managed to get on a train, and feeling much relieved, settled down to read my book. But the train stopped at 168th Street and we were waiting for a long, long time, held up in the station for unknown reasons. A couple of guys on my car were making a lot of rambunctious noise. I didn’t know if they were troublemakers or simply in high spirits, so I kept my eyes on them, and when I saw that one was had a large knife stuck into the front of his waistband I decided switching cars might be a good idea. I did this, and just as I’d sat down the conductor announced the doors were malfunctioning and we’d all have to get off. I exited the train and heard someone call my name. Another surprise: it was Luis, a guy I’d known from the Centro Leon in Santiago. I didn’t recognize him at first in his baseball cap, jeans, and jersey, having only seen him in his work attire of khaki pants and long-sleeve, button-down shirts before. Small world!

I was doubly glad to be with someone I knew another minute later. As the crowd waited on the platform, two different gangs had met two cars down for us and they started fighting. Not knowing what kind of weaponry they might have on them, we all started to run, and as I did so, I thought of stories of people getting crushed in stampeding crowds.. Luis guided me and his other friends by the elbow to a less crowded staircase, and we sprinted up to find the elevator open but full and just about to leave. We pressed ourselves in anyway and went up. At the top we stopped to catch our breath and decide what to do next. I thought of going up and taking the bus instead, but Luis cautioned that it could be as bad or worse on the topside. Instead we waited until we saw police go down and figured things had calmed enough to descend once again. I got home safe and sound, and just in time for Hanna to come by for happy hour.

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