The Can of Beer
That Toppled The King of Parades
The Real Story of How the
National Puerto Rican Day Parade
Was Returned to the Community
By Ramon J. Jimenez, Esq. (May 25, 2014)
It happened in May 2013.
It was a sunny, hot, quiet, slow moving day in the South Bronx, when suddenly my office door jumped open revealing a man, well respected in the New York community. It was Lucky Rivera, the longtime leader of Positive Work Force and the head of Boricuas for a Positive Image, a group established after a controversy with Channel 7 over an insult in one their sitcoms against the Puerto Rican community. Positive Work Force gets thousands of jobs for Latino and Black construction workers, using every tactic available to have employers hire able and ready minority workers. In my eyes, the leaders and organizers of Positive Work Force are unsung war heroes.
The Flag-on-the-Beer-Can Controversy
Pointing to what appeared to be a large 24-ounce of Coors Beer, Lucky shouted as he entered, “These knuckleheads have put our Puerto Rican Flag on their can. This is an insult to all of us. Look, it appears that the Puerto Rican Day Parade Board consented to this since their emblem is on the beer can.”
And that’s how it started.
We immediately dispatched a letter to Coors and its main New York Distributor – Manhattan Beer Distributors -located in the Bronx. We demanded that they cease manufacturing immediately and distributing any further promotional cans and issue an apology. We then sent a copy of this letter along with a press release headlined “Puerto Ricans say No to Coors Promotion.” We announced there would be major demonstration days before the parade, in front of the office of Manhattan Beer Distributors at 955 E. 149th St. in the Bronx. The press release included critics of the marketing agent of the parade, Carlos Velasquez, whom we stated has “shown more interest in profit than in portraying a positive image.”
The Ramon Velez-Galos Connection
The largest and most viewed parade in New York City had been for many years controlled by Carlos Velasquez (Galos Marketing) who inherited it from his political godfather, Ramon Velez. In a gushing 2004 biography of Ramon Velez (paid for by Galos Publishing), Velasquez contributing writers heap uncritical praise on Velez, the man most known for creating and maintaining a poverty empire in the South Bronx.
Velez controlled the parade with an iron hand from 1976 all the way to the late ’90s. Galos became the marketing agent of the parade in 1996. While Velez controlled the parade, he was often accused by political enemies, reformers and even Attorney General Robert Abrams of using the parade for personal profit and political power. Velez often bragged that the National Puerto Rican Day Parade was the largest Puerto Rican Organization in North America.
From the very beginning, there were battles to control the parade, the most memorable being that between Ramon Velez and Gilberto Gerena Valentin. In 1976, Velez was even accused of sending a woman to Haiti on the parade budget to pick up Voodoo dolls to protect him from the Espiritistas, who were threatening his control of the Parade.
Although there had been many attempts to oust Velez, he remained in control until Alzheimer’s disease began to set in. In 1996 Galos Marketing and Carlos Velasquez took over the parade. It was he along with Board President Marlene Lugo who made the deal with Coors for its promotional can with the Puerto Rican Flag on it.
The May 22nd letter we sent to Coors and its main distributor demanded that they immediately stop manufacturing and distributing a Coors Light 24-ounce can with a Puerto Rican Flag on its face. The letter threatened all legal means to halt their misconceived promotion. The letter, signed only by me as General Counsel, had a long list of Puerto Rican elected officials and activists endorsing the demands. Lucky Rivera gave us those names, although we were not certain everyone was on board with our every demand.
There was a frenzy once the media received the press release. Camera crew after Camera crew (channels 7, 4, 11, CNN) came to our office to do reports. The New York Times sent a reporter who spent hours with us and wrote two feature pieces in their metro section.
Prior to a May 30th demonstration we were organizing, Coors sent numerous representatives from local, regional and national offices to my offices seeking a private meeting. We made excuses not to meet with them until after the demonstration.
The demonstration was an outstanding success. More than 500 people, many of them members of BFPI, PWF, the South Bronx Community Congress and El Maestro.
Among the elected officials were the City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, and Congressman Charlie Rangel. All major media covered the protest with the Times writing a full-page feature in their next day’s edition.
One hour after the picket, a group of us met with numerous, very apologetic Coors executives at the offices of Manhattan Distributors. At first the Coors executives could not understand our being insulted by their promotion. It was apparent they had previously had all dealings with Carlos Velasquez, who had consented to this promotion.
Among those meeting with Coors executives were Lucky Rivera, Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito, Alonzo Correa, Vincent Torres, Laila Roman Jimenez, Bijoux, a photographer, and myself. After listening to a number of our representatives, the Coors executives began to make concessions.
They agreed to no further distribution of the promotional can. They agreed to cease the further manufacturing and distribution of promotional cans. They agreed to issue a public apology. For many reasons, the Coors executives seemed to understand our power better than we did. Coors was obviously concerned that a united Puerto Rican community could hurt their sales and, perhaps in a year where the parade was dedicated to health, they had overstepped their boundaries.
Focusing on the Parade Board and Marketing Agent
After leaving the meeting satisfied to an extent with the initial concessions by Coors, we collectively realized that the main target had to be the Parade Board and its marketing agent. They were the ones responsible for the total commercialization of the parade, at the expense of the people’s culture, history and dignity. This initial review by us began to unravel the machinations of the corporations and non-profits feeding off the Parade.
The revenues reported by the Parade seemed to be very low, especially in light of all its paid sponsors and the fees collected for floats.
We discovered that very little money was going for scholarships, although this was one of the original purposes of the Parade. We discovered that Carlos Velasquez had created a number of corporations, including Galos Marketing, Galos Publishing, Galos Broadcasting and the Diversity Foundation (that allegedly gave out scholarships). Each of these corporate entities did business with the parade, and Carlos Velasquez controlled them all.
Galos Broadcasting was responsible for the broadcasting of the Parade. Galos Publishing was responsible for publishing books about Puerto Rican so-called alleged icons, such as Ramon Velez and Congressman Jose Serrano. Many told us that Velasquez used their books to buy favors from elected officials. It certainly seemed to work with Congressman José Serrano, benefactor of a book by Galos Publishing, who didn’t say anything about the Parade all through the controversy.
Upon further review of the tax returns of the Parade, it appeared that they were not directly giving out scholarships, but instead Diversity Foundation, a not-for-profit created by Velasquez, was giving out the scholarships.
When we examined the Board, there were only six members, the key ones being remnants of the Velez poverty programs empire, including its president Madeline Lugo. On the same Board sat the husband of Lugo, Luis Rivera. The Board appeared to be totally controlled by Velasquez and Lugo. It was ripe with many conflicts of interest. Monies for sponsors seemed to be first going to Galos Marketing before they went to the Parade.
After our initial investigation, we decided to call a community meeting to discuss the issues and possible strategies. The meeting took place on June 6, 2013 at Taino Towers in East Harlem. The meeting was well-attended and included older veterans of the parade, members of BFPI, representatives of numerous organizations and elected officials Melissa Mark-Viverito and Assemblyman Jose Rivera.
Demanding an Investigation of the Parade
Although the speeches were too long, and there was little time for dialogue, the group decided to demand that the Attorney General investigate the entire board and its marketing agent. On June 10, 2013 we sent a letter to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman raising numerous questions on the operation and organization of the parade.
Although Schneiderman had initiated an investigation of Coors and its connections to the Parade, we went further and demanded a full investigation of the Board and Carlos Velasquez.
The letter reassured the AG that our “purpose is not to obtain positions on the board nor to seek contracts. We simply want our Parade once again to be representative of our community and transparent in all its operations.” I signed the letter as attorney for BFPI.
Shortly thereafter, we were informed that there would be a full investigation conducted by Assistant Attorney General David Nachman, Esq.
During the summer months of 2013 we held meetings and continued to do our investigation. In late October, we began a 1,000 phone call campaign to the AG demanding that every effort be made to guarantee full and thorough investigation. We wanted the AG to know that there were many people dissatisfied with the management of the parade. The AG received calls from all over including Puerto Rico, Florida, California, and Chicago. The amount of public participation in the phone call campaign was overwhelming. We were simply asking people to make one phone call each.
In late 2013 a number of community representatives, including a number of activists from BFPI, met with the AG’s investigative team. Angelo Falcón, President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), attended this meeting.
We were asked to provide evidence of the wrongdoings of the Parade. Those present at the meeting raised a number of issues. Among them were:
1. All the spin off corporations that Carlos Velasquez controlled;
2. The low amount of revenues reported by the parade;
3. The small amount of money that was given for scholarships;
4. The lack of a report from Velasquez to the Board identifying all revenues taken in by the Parade.
The meeting was productive and left us feeling the AG was serious about the investigation.
Throughout late December 2013 and January 2014 we waited for the findings of the AG’s investigation.
Guilty as Charged!
Under the settlement with the AG’s office, Velasquez was required to pay the Parade $100,000 while cancelling a one million dollar debt he alleged the Parade owed him. He agreed to step down as marketing agent, and it removed three of the 6-member Board. The President of the Board, Madeline Lugo, was forced to step down. There were many accusations and rumors about Velasquez and Lugo. Some said they both had become wealthy and acquired numerous properties, all at the expense of the Parade.
It also disbanded Diversity Foundation and its director Debra Martinez agreed not to participate in any National Puerto Rican Day activities for a five years.
Prior to the announcement by the AG’s office, Lucky Rivera and I had met with Nachman. Although he could not reveal specific findings, he told us we would be very happy with the findings. He also indicated that there would be a further investigation of the role of Velasquez with his other parades, which might lead to criminal prosecution.
Reorganizing the Parade Board
At the same news conference where the AG announced his findings, new board members were introduced. Many of the new board members were recommended by Councilmember Mark-Viverito and other elected officials. Some had strong ties to a lobbying group led by former Bronx Democratic Leader Roberto Ramirez and Luis Miranda. There was concern that maybe a new group was attempting to take over the Parade. The Board originally chose none of the three names we gave to Mark-Viverito.
The new head of the Board, Lorraine Cortez-Vasquez, a former New York Secretary of State under disgraced former Governor Eliot Spitzer, had strong ties to the Ramirez/Miranda lobbying group, MirRam. There were also board members chosen that had no experience with the Parade, no community involvement and very little connection to New York City.
Our feelings about the investigation were mixed. Unlike journalist Gerson Borrero, we did not fault the AG for the length of time it took to complete the investigation. We understand that even scoundrels have rights, and prosecuting any current member and successfully removing the board members and marketing agent would require thorough and extensive evidence.
Our critique of the deal concerned the lack of criminal prosecution of the marketing agent. Clearly the AG’s report alleged criminal acts by Velasquez; the deal not to pursue criminal charges was difficult to accept. Many of us thought that Velasquez’ taking of more than one million dollars was a clear intentional violation of the law. To this day, we don’t understand what stopped federal or state prosecutors from taking action. To this day we await the results of the investigation of Galos Marketing in other parades.
Would the Parade Take Place?
There were many rumors circulating including that, as a result of the changes, this year’s Parade would be cancelled. Journalist Gerson Borrero was very critical of the length of time it took for the AG to complete the investigation. Politicians like State Senator Ruben Diaz, who had never had an opinion on the Parade while it was being plundered, were very critical of the AG and his report.
At the AG’s news conference, we were told that the Parade would go forward and that there would be more funds for scholarships. A number of Puerto Rican officials were at the news conference with Schneiderman, standing at his side on the front stage. The only one on stage who had been with us since the initial protest was Councilmember Mark-Viverito. The others came to take some credit for something with which they had nothing to do. Former Bronx Borough President Freddie Ferrer set the tone by ushering the beginning of a new ethics for the Parade. The room was full of politicians and press; Lucky Rivera and I were squeezed into a very uncomfortable corner.
Of the remaining Board members, two resigned, leaving only Rafael Dominguez as the survivor of a Board that, at best, stayed silent while the marketing agent mismanaged the Parade.
Later. two new members were appointed to the board; one of them, Vincent Torres, is a leader of BFPI. We finally got one real community representative on the board who would serve as our eyes and ears and, hopefully, never again would the Parade be pilfered and plundered.
The other appointee was a one-time friend, Rosanna Rosado, a former editor and publisher of El Diario-La Prensa. When we originally began the campaign against Coors, the Board and the marketing agent, she had been a great defender of the board and Velasquez. Some said she had been so often feted by the Parade that she was incapable of being objective. Perhaps it was the advertising revenue from the Parade. The New York Times had written two feature pieces on the controversy while the Latino newspaper El Diario, “campeon de los Hispanos,” ignored the story while publishing an editorial critical of those who sought the investigation. Rosado, close to Councilmember Mark-Viverito, was appointed upon her recommendation.
The Parade was scheduled for June 8, 2014. In subsequent press conferences, the new board announced that the Parade would go forward, that all floats were required to have a cultural message, more money for scholarships was promised, and a guarantee of transparency was made.
At the Parade, Mark-Viverito will be Grand Marshal, along with Brooklyn Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez. We can be sure that all politicians from Cuomo to Schneiderman to DeBlasio will be present.
Honoring the Real Heroes of the Parade
If it were up to me, I would honor each and every person involved in the original protest against Coors. I would honor all those who came to meetings and those representatives who on a cold, snowy day met with the AG. In addition, I would include all those who made phone calls to the AG demanding a full and fair investigation. I would mention all those from Puerto Rico, Florida, Connecticut and Westchester County, who made the phone calls.
These are the real heroes of the Parade. These are the people who reclaimed our Parade that was too long in the hands of those who misappropriated and misspent money meant for scholarships for needy students.
Let history be told as it happened, not by those who were behind closed doors when we began the campaign and now rush to the front stage to take credit.
This victory belongs to many who chose to defend their culture, history, flag, and dignity against some very powerful forces.
* * *
Sometime in late spring rumors circulated that Carlos Velasquez, for so many years King of the Parades, had closed his Manhattan office. The Coors Light beer can with the Puerto Rican flag was rumored to be selling on Ebay for $120.
Coors: the can of beer that toppled the King of the Parades.
Ramon Jimenez (who passed away on May 10, 2016) wass a lifetime community activist, mentor/advisor, and writer, at various times a radio host, journalist, professor and lecturer. He has been a South Bronx litigator (and agitator), representing low-income families, injured workers, community groups and others in the poorest Congressional district in the country. He successfully fought to save Hostos Community College and achieved the rebuilding of blighted neighborhoods like Charlotte Street. A well-seasoned professional, Jimenez has also served as an administrative law judge for New York State Workers Compensation Board.
Jimenez spoke about the Parade issues with radio host Howard Jordan on WBAI-FM’s The Jordan Journal on Friday. To listen to the interview, click here.
The Incredible Shrinking Parade
By Angelo Falcón
The NiLP Report (May 30, 2017)
The National Puerto Rican Day Parade is about to take place, so it seems appropriate to try to take all of the last few weeks’ developments in the controversy surrounding it and attempt to make some sense of them. Here I try as best I can to sum up what happened and why, but I must warn you that you are going to think that I made most of it up! My explanation — such is the nature of the politics of Puerto Ricans, a colonized people.
Here goes: As the number of corporations dropping their sponsorships of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade grows and grows, the Parade will, by definition, shrink and shrink, and can easily disappear. Its Board Chair, Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, some say, can now play the lead in a movie that could be titled, “Honey, I Shrunk the Parada!”
While the focus of Puerto Rican activists in New York now is the defense of the Puerto Rican Parade for the attacks on it for honoring independentista militant Oscar Lopez Rivera as a “National Freedom Hero,” it is also important to address the underlying problem of the politicization of the Parade. This is an issue that was forcefully raised by the late civil rights attorney, Ramon Jimenez, and Boricuas for a Positive Image. With the support of Melissa Mark Viverito (who at the time was only one of 51 Councilmembers, represented El Barrio and was not yet Speaker) and some other Puerto Rican elected officials, Jimenez was instrumental in getting NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to investigate the corruption at the Parade that led, among other things, to the replacement of its Board with new members screened by the Attorney General in 2014. (Click here for a list of current Board members)
However, in this process of reconstituting the Parade Board, it became increasingly evident that Mark Viverito used her influential position as Council Speaker that she now holds to inappropriately play a direct role in this process and in subsequent Parade Board deliberations. The selection of Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez as its Chair further politicized the process, given her long term ties with her mentor, former Assmeblyman Roberto Ramirez, a founding partner in the political consulting firm of Luis Miranda, The MirRam Group. Miranda, in turn, has been a political consultant to Mark Viverito. This political compromising of the Parade was further advanced by the February announcement by NYC Mayor de Blasio that he was appointing Cortes-Vazquez as his Senior Advisor for Hispanic Outreach (she was already his appointee to the CUNY Board of Trustees), just in time for his reelection campaign this year. A mapping of these relations looks something like this:
Cortes-Vazquez’ current leadership role during this controversial period? According to a report in the May 17th New York Times: “Spokesmen for City Hall and the parade organization refused to make Ms. Cortés-Vázquez available for an interview.” Since the Oscar controversy broke out, Cortes-Vazquez, despite being the Parade Chair, she has been nowhere to be found, according to journalists who have been trying to reach her, a product, no doubt, of the conflicts of interest she is drowning in. How can the head of the Parade go AWOL during such a crisis? Should this be grounds in and of itself for calling for her resignation from the Parade Board? In terms of her job with the Mayor, is this her idea of effective Hispanic outreach?
In her absence, Cortes-Vazquez’ vice chair, Ululy Rafael Martinez, who is Director of Government Affairs for Altice USA (Cablevision), has had to step in and his appearances in the media have focused more on his defense of Cortes-Vazquez than of the Parade. Another informal “spokeman” for the Parade to emerge lately is Luis Miranda, who has assumed the position that Oscar Lopez Rivera is defintely a hero and not a terrorist. The question with Miranda playig this informal role makes one wonder if he is speaking on behald of Mark-Viversito (who he advises), Mayor de Blasio (for whom he is a paid political consultant) or Cortes-Vazquez (who is a paid employee of the Mayor)? I thought that political consultants were supposed to be working in the background.
By all accounts, except Mark Viverito’s, this politicizing of the Parade continued with her role in promoting the Parade Board’s adoption of the title of “National Freedom Hero” for Oscar Lopez Rivera. Mark Viverito’s motives for doing this were, I am sure, entirely pure given her long term and deeply-felt support for the freedom of Lopez Rivera. I am also sure she knew there would be some blowback on that decision from the usual suspects, as she has gotten in the past. But I guess she thought that she and the Parade could easily weather it as she already has over time. However, she never counted on the strong, cold wind coming from Puerto Rico that would dump political cold water on this long sought after and important gesture. It also doesn’t help that she is term-limited in office and is thus a lame-duck official with increasingly limited political clout in a mayoral election year
The Oscar Lopez Rivera issue represented the further politicization of the Parade from another source: the statehood movement in Puerto Rico. To add to the madness of the politics involved with the Parade, a highly controversial plebiscite on the political status of Puerto Rico has been scheduled on, of all days, June 11th, the same day as the Puerto Rican Parade is to march down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue! The government and party of Governor Ricardo Roselló are making a strong push for statehood and it appears that elements of it launched a social media campaign attacking indepedentista targets (that include Mark-Viverito and Carmen Yulin, the Mayor of San Juan who both oppose statehood) by focusing on the Parade’s honoring Lopez Rivera who they describe as a “terrorist.” This resulted in pressure on Goya Foods in Puerto Rico to drop their sponsorship of the Parade, followed by JetBlue, the New York Yankees, AT&T, Coca-Cola, the New York Daily News, Telemundo, Univision. Coronam, NBC and who knows who else (I can’t keep up!).
These two influences on the Parade possibly create the greatest challenge to this institution in its 60 years of operation. The Parade has been investigated before and has been involved in numerous other controversies over the years, but nothing on the scale of the current crisis. Some think that it will survive these problems and will carry on anew next year, but I am not sure. A case in point: Will the corporate sponsors that dropped out this year return? That is not at all clear if history is any guide.
As its corporate sponsorships evaporate, so does their budget to pay for the many Parade expenses and its related events, like their annual gala. The disappearance of all these sponsorships also mean the sharp drop in advertising revenue that is the basis of WABC’s television coverage of the Parade — will that also be compromised? This shrinkage of the Parade is having additional collateral damage — hotel, restaurant, concert and other businesses whose income is based on those thousands who come into town for the Parade are all starting to report losses. What will happen next? Will the Archdiocese of New York (and, therefore, God) cancel on them as well and skip the traditional ceremony at St. Patrick’s the Friday before?
To further impact on the size of the Parade, the fact that there is this potentially consequential and financially wasteful status plebiscite occurring on the same day in Puerto Rico will no doubt impact negatively on the usual presence of Island political leaders attending the Parade, something that the Island’s massive debt crisis has already accomplished. The Parade always honors a town from the Island and features some hometown contingents, but these may be in as short supply as the Parade’s corporate funding.
While the Parade Board is scrambling to figure out what to do next and to raise last-minute funds to cover expenses, those on the left are celebrating the Parade’s loss of corporate funding. They hope that this will turn the Parade into something more rooted in the Puerto Rican community with a more cultural orientation and no or little commercial influences. Some excitedly see it becoming a Parade mostly of supporters of Oscar Lopez Rivera. However, the Puerto Rican left is not the Parade Board, so it is not clear how this corporate defunding can be turned into a good thing. So far, there hasn’t emerged a workable plan for proceeding with the original vision for an event (and related events) of this large a scale without the resources they initially counted on. What will a parade much reduced in size and without all of the corporate glitter and entertainment look like on as large a stage as Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue?
One option that is getting more and more attention is the calling on the NYS Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, to intervene and reorganize the Parade once again! The current crisis the Parade is in, many argue, is the result of gross mismanagement and partisan politics. These should be the basis for the AG to remove the current Parade leadership and replace it with less political and more community-grounded types. But there are also doubts that this would occur because of the AG’s political ties to those involved in compromising this important community institution.
So in the short time left before the Puerto Rican Day Parade hits the streets, the drama will continue as the uncertainty of the situation keeps growing. The Puerto Rican left is happy because of the recognition Oscar Lopez Rivera is getting. The statehooders are happy because they scored points by forcing the corporate withdrawal of support from the Parade. Meanwhile, the Parade itself is in tatters, ripped apart by political elements of the very community that it has for so many years inspired.
In the end, the year 2017 may be remembered in the Puerto Rican community as the year of Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez and Her Incredible Shrinking (or maybe even Vanishing) Parade. Will this be yet another major Puerto Rican institution in New York marching straight into the Intensive Care Unit (or Hospice) of history?
Angelo Falcón is President of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.