Las Fiestas Puertorriqueñas

By: Ashmar Mandou

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Local News

Angel ‘Tito’ Medina

With an estimated 1.8 million attendees at last year’s Puerto Rican Festival, the second biggest festival behind Taste of Chicago, it is no wonder why Angel ‘Tito’ Medina, president of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee and Rafael Echevarria, executive director of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, are working day and night to make sure this year’s festival surpasses all previous years. “Our goal is really pass the 2 million mark,” laughed Echevarria. “We just hope the weather in our favor.” Kicking off Sunday, June 12 Humboldt Park will play host to a week-long festival replete with delicious cuisine and the tropical sound of the salsa beats and reggaeton rhythms. Amid meetings, rehearsals, and pure excitement, Medina and Echevarria sat down with the Lawndale Bilingual Newspaper to talk about the organization’s dark past, new programs, and what they are looking forward to the most at this year’s Puerto Rican Festival.

Lawndale News: With the Puerto Rican Festival just next week, what are you two looking forward to the most?
Angel ‘Tito’ Medina:
Oh, I can’t believe the festival is next week. Whenever I think about the festival it brings a smile to my face because I know how hard we worked in the last six months since taking up our new positions. It was a lot of work [laughs]. We really tried to do our best for the community and we hope that shows next week.
Rafael Echevarria: It’s going to be different and the reason why, as Tito just said, is because we took over six months ago. The organization was in a dire condition. We had budget issues, we had personal issues, we had organizational issues, and now the good thing is we have a festival. We are going to have a great parade and we just pray it doesn’t rain [laughs].

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Local NewsLN: What can festival goers expect this year?
This year people will experience a different vibe. I grew up in the Humboldt Park community. So with the love and passion I have for my community I wanted to change the atmosphere within the Puerto Rican Parade Committee and the Puerto Rican Festival. My staff and I wanted to promote unity and really showcase the beauty of our Puerto Rican heritage. We are going to have great performances and the parade itself will be something special as each float will incorporate a scene from Puerto Rico. Also, with the help of the new administration we were able to move past the organization’s troubled past and reshape its mission.

LN: Speaking of the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, how were you able to move past its tumultuous past?
We came in with a different perspective, with a different motivation. Tito has been a part of this community for a long time and he wants the community to be successful and have something that actually belongs to them. In this case, based on some gross mismanagement there were some issues with the building itself, the mortgage was behind, insurance was behind; permits were not paid on time, etc. We had to cut off all those past debts. Within five months we managed to pay off $147,000, which is an impressive feat. If we hadn’t, there would not be a festival this year. So we worked extremely hard to make that happen.
Medina: I have to say I was a little nervous. I had an idea of what was going on with the past administration so when I came into office I wasn’t surprised. When the community elected me to become president this year I told my staff we had to confront the issue and create a solution that allowed us to move towards a positive direction. We had to change its mission and create a space that allowed for growth and honesty. Above all, we needed a change. So as Echevarria stated, we worked day and night to pay off the debt caused by the previous administration and now we are in the process of reaching out to other organizations to develop new programs for our community.

LN: How would you like the Humboldt Park community to view La Casa Puertorriqueña?
Before, La Casa Puertorriqueña closed its doors to the community. There were no programs, no excitement, nothing that was being offered to the Humboldt Park community. Now we are open seven days a week and we are going to have various programs offered to residents. Everything from computer lessons, to GED classes, to Karate lessons, and dance classes will be offered for residents. We want to make sure the youth in our community have a place to go. A ‘home away from home,’ if you will.
Echevarria: I would like community members to see our organization as a place that promotes partnership and unity. We are more than just the Puerto Rican Festival. We want to create other festivals and programs that will educate and spark conversation and curiosity about our culture.
Medina: To add on, I believe the community is gaining our trust again. They are putting their trust and confidence in us again and that is an amazing feeling.

LN: After the festival comes to an end, what would have wanted people to take away?
That we are a community with passion. We want people to look beyond the stereotypes and see what this community, what Humboldt Park has to offer. We are much more than what you see on the news. We are not a community filled with gangs and violence. We are a community that is open-hearted and open-minded. Humboldt Park is filled with youth who are making a difference in their own right every day. That’s what I want people to take away when they visit Humboldt Park.
Echevarria: We bring to the table a very spicy personality [laughs]. We are colorful through our music, food, and our culture. We have a lot of love. We have a lot of respect for each other. We are a community that holds on to our roots. And I hope people see that next week.

LN: Where will people find you two during the festival?
[Laughs] I’ll probably be walking around the whole park making sure everyone is having a good time.
Echevarria: I’ll most likely be dancing at some point [Laughs].

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