El "Dia de San Juan" Festival Scholarship Fundraiser - Article written by: Edward Perez
The Western Regional Puerto Rican Council’s (WRPRC) annual “Día de San Juan” is one of the most highly anticipated events of the summer festival season. Like the huge San José Jazz Festival, “El Día de San Juan” is a major cultural event in Silicon Valley. While not nearly as expansive as the jazz festival “El Día de San Juan” does elicit an expectation, an excitement, and a ‘buzz’ among its supporters unmatched by its much larger brethren. As the days lengthen and the temperatures rise, families and supporters proudly mark the day on their calendars to ensure nothing will conflict with that singular Saturday in June or July when, as one, we will gather under la bonita bandera de la Isla del Encanto—Puerto Rico—to sing, dance, eat, play, and rejoice. It’s our day to celebrate who we are and where we come from. “Somos Puertorriqueños… hasta la muerte.”
This year “El Día de San Juan” had, once again, moved to a different location—History Park in San José. Since its inception, in 1958, “El Día de San Juan” has bounced from venue to venue as circumstances dictated. Most recently, Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View was called home, prior to that there was a stint of several years at the San José Fairgrounds. While there, the festival wavered between the lesser, grassy side arenas and the paved main arena. Before that the festivities were at Cunningham Park in east San José. The first Día de San Juan was celebrated in San Francisco in 1958.
One would expect the lack of a stable venue to hurt attendance or diminish continuity but as far as I can see, it has not. Nothing has allayed the enthusiasm, the pride, or the sheer joy expressed by the Puerto Rican people on this—their day. Each year the festival has grown in strength, execution, determination, complexity, and prominence—despite its wandering nature. This is a tribute to the efforts of the WRPRC and to the unfettered spirit of a community more than willing to donate its time and effort to keep “El Día de San Juan” on the calendar. The network is set. The communication is in place. The WRPRC, working year round with an army of dedicated, selfless volunteers, refuses to be denied. This is their day and nothing will get in its way.
“El Día de San Juan” is a joyous celebration of music, dance, food, culture, language, ownership, history, hopefulness, and agency. “El Día de San Juan” is the Fourth of July, it’s Cinco de Mayo, it’s Saint Patrick’s Day, it’s Bastille Day, it’s our day. It’s a day to be with friends, family, and loved ones. It’s a day to eat, to drink, to dance, to remember and to create new memories. It’s a time to debate and a time play dominoes. It’s time to sip a little too much rum and to eat a little too much food. It’s a time to doze and flirt. It’s a time to joke and to laugh, to see old friends and probably make new ones. It’s a celebration of life, an expression of joy, and a tribute to San Juan, the patron saint and namesake of the capital of Borinquen. It’s a day to come together and share all that it means to be “Boricua!”
July 18th 2009 was a blistering hot day and the sun was riding high in the sky as we approached the main entrance. Perhaps the near triple digit temperatures were apropos for such a tropical celebration. It was hot but that did not appear to dissuade attendance in the least. The parking lots were full but the cars continued to arrive full of anticipatory faces.
I chuckled to myself thinking, if this was your first time here and if you were not sure you were in the right place, it would be easy to see you were because nearly everyone is clad, head-to-toe, in the red, white, and blue of the Puerto Rican flag. If there is one thing that Puerto Ricans take extreme pride in, it’s their flag. The single white star set in a triangle of blue attached to the swaying red and white stripes are everywhere. A quick look around you will reveal shirts, hats, shoes, jeans, shorts, socks, belts, earrings, tattoos, banners, umbrellas, sunglasses, folding chairs, bikinis, headbands, key-chains, wallets, bracelets, table cloths, and every other conceivable item that could possibly carry the Puerto Rican flag surrounding you. There are metal signs that read “Puerto Rican Parking Only.” Almost any item you can imagine having a flag on it is there for purchase. If I could figure out a way for lipstick to leave the flag on your lips, I would make a fortune. I’d bet $10 someone has the flag on their contact lenses. The flag is everywhere. The only other thing that comes close to this ubiquity is the coquí. The coquí is a small frog with a distinctive whistle that can live nowhere else but Puerto Rico. It is their mascot.
We passed through security and at once, the sounds and smells of the festival start to pull you in and welcome you. They are like a friendly slap on the back, a squeeze around the shoulders, and a hearty “Como e’ta’?” The music from the stages, the wafts of smoke from the grills, the sizzle from the fryers, the grind of the piraguas, the laughter from the crowd, the cries and shrieks of the children, all blend into a swirling stew of happiness and cheer unlike any other festival I’ve ever attended.
As we enter the crowd thickens around us with each step. Following us is a steady stream of Puerto Rican flags ready for their day in the sun. Already I see familiar faces peppering the throng. The music swells; my stomach growls, my mouth waters, and my feet start to tap to the beat of the salsa pulsing through the air. History Park is a wonderful choice for “El Día de San Juan.” The old buildings, the large shady trees, the cool green grass, it’s the best place yet. The grounds are large but not too large, it’s clean, well situated, friendly, inviting, and pretty. This is going to be good. History Park is like having a little town all to your self. I feel like the Mayor.
We found a shady spot next to the ‘bank,’ set up our chairs, and immediately headed out onto the dance floor. Fito Reynoso y Ritmo y Armonía, were starting their first song. It was as if they had waited for us to arrive. This is good. Even a temperature in the high nineties does not slow down the dancing. The dance floor is full of spinning, swaying couples putting their best moves on display for the appreciative eyes encircling them. I see longing in the eyes of the women who want to dance and terror in the eyes of their dates—who do not know how to dance. They must not be Puerto Rican. C’mon guys… learn to dance!
It’s hot and we’re sweating after scant moments on the dance floor but it feels good. It’s hot, we’re here; we came to dance, to have fun. The music is amazing and the people are enthralled. This is why we came. After two songs we head back to our shady spot, drink some ice-cold water and greet some friends. The band sounds good. The bands always sound good at this festival. I think they are as excited as the rest of us. We are slathered in sun block.
During the break between bands we take a leisurely stroll around the festival to peruse the merchandise and to sample the food. I’m looking for a fan with a Puerto Rican flag on it and, much to my surprise, it’s the one item no one has (note to self). Also on our list is a baseball cap. We find one with a Puerto Rican flag on it for $3. Now—that—is a deal.
The food is spectacular: Pasteles, Bacalaítos, Arroz con Habichuelas, Piraguas, Alcapurrias, Frijoles Negros, Moros y Cristianos (Cuban), Pinchos de Puerco, Plátanos, Amarillos, all fresh, all home-made, all delicious. What I wouldn’t give for a Malta, a Limber, or a Maví.
We waved hello to various friends as we threaded our way through the crowd and vendor’s booths. Everyone looked happy and relaxed. There are so many strong, broad shouldered young men and so many beautiful, curvaceous, dark skinned women. What a handsome people with sparkling eyes and shining smiles.
On the second stage a performance of Bomba y Plena, a traditional Puerto Rican dance, was being highlighted. There are many children involved in these presentations, as it should be. It’s wonderful because it imparts in the children a sense of their history. It ingrains in them knowledge of who they are. It demonstrates to them where a part of their culture comes from. Bomba y Plena comes from the African heritage of the amalgam of the African, Spanish, and Taino heritage of the island. Such a powerful tool deserves to be on the main stage at a prime time. The movements, the skirt work, and the stories told in the dance offer so much.
We circle back around to the main stage in time to see Eric Rangel y Orquesta América keep things going for the afternoon. The festival is in full swing. We eat, we laugh, we visit, and we take pictures that will be posted on the Internet within hours but now it’s time for the dance contest.
The dance contest is a tradition at the festival and is always hotly contested. This year would be no exception—both literally and figuratively. The contest is very free form and anyone may participate. All you have to do is get on the dance floor and start dancing when the music starts. The original 18 couples are quickly whittled down to 6 semi-finalists. After another round which consists of: Salsa, Merengue, Cha-cha-cha, Bomba, and Plena, the 3 finalists are selected. Another round of the 5 dances is danced and the crowd decides the winner by applause.
After a pitched battle, a tall woman, dressed in black, who had been dancing, non-stop all day, won the contest. She pumped her fists in the air, hugged her partner, and congratulated her competition. Victorious, she removed her shoes and tossed them into the trash. She was done dancing for the day. The wear and tear of the hot asphalt had destroyed her shoes. Her shoes were ruined. Her feet were sore and dirty. She was completely spent but she had won.
To dance all day, dressed in black, in the hot sun, and then to give your all in the dance contest, shows the sort of passion “El Día de San Juan” brings out in people. It doesn’t matter what sort of obstacles there are to overcome. It doesn’t matter if we have to have it in a different place every year. It doesn’t matter what our funding looks like. It doesn’t matter if attendance is higher or lower. It doesn’t matter if we are the only ones who know about it. All that matters is that “El Día de San Juan” continues because if it continues, all that will take care of itself. It’s our day and we will not let it go.
“El Día de San Juan” is a glorious festival. I can think of no other word that does it justice. It’s a day filled with love, humor, good will, and caring. It’s a display of the heart and soul of a people. Come share our food. Come share our music. Come sit with us, dance with us, and eat with us. We want you to come. We want you to see who we are because—we are proud of who we are.
¿ADÓNDE E’TÁN LA’ BORICUA’?