By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
VINELAND – There were no politics at the Festival Puertorriqueno de Vineland annual flag raising at Vineland City Hall Saturday afternoon, despite both candidates in the country’s most anticipated House Congressional race sitting a few seats again from each other.
New Jersey District 2 incumbent Republican Jeff Van Drew and Democratic challenger Amy Kennedy, both sat on the front row of dignitaries in the sweltering heat of the 30-minute outdoor event, the first time they met face-to-face since the July 7 primary that confirmed they will be taking on each other.
Only Van Drew spoke at the event as he presented a proclamation to Festival Puertorriqueno President Leonides Negron. Van Drew and Kennedy both stressed the day was about celebrating the Puerto Rican culture in the region, leaving politics for later.
Their presence, though, may be an indication of how much they are valuing the Latinx vote this fall.
Festival Puertorriqueno, arguably the largest annual festival celebrating the Puerto Rican culture in all of New Jersey, had to be cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The annual flag raising at City Hall was one of the handful of traditions organizers and city officials were able to still pull off.
“This is celebrating the Puerto Rican community which has given so much to America,” Van Drew told Front Runner New Jersey before events started Saturday. “I firmly believe regardless of what race, creed of culture you are, we all contribute to that important history. They have contributed so much. Things will be a lot quieter today because of COVID-19. We all know who we are we’re all in this together.”
Likewise, Kennedy said she wanted to concentrate on celebrating with locals in the Puerto Rican community than talk about the campaign.
“Even in these unusual times, there is still this beautiful display of culture,” Kennedy said of the small ceremony, where traditional dancers and colorful displays dotted City Hall. “To see all of these families coming out I’m just glad to be a part of it. Today is really about the celebration and the families that we’re honoring.”
Negron said Festival Puertorriqueno routinely draws about 20,000 people annually and this year would have been the 53rd celebration, making it one of the longest running festivals honoring Puerto Rican in Northeast.
“People wanted to have the festival but we had to keep people safe,” Negron said. “We have a lot of support in the community for the Puerto Rican Festival. We wanted everybody to be safe. This festival brings people together from all different cultures and want to be able to continue that.”
Vineland Mayor Anthony Fanucci issued his own proclamation for the Festival Puertorriqueno organizers as well. State Sen. Mike Testa was also on hand for the event.
“The Puerto Rican community has been integral part the Vineland community for my entire life,” said Testa, a Vineland resident. “This is the oldest Puerto Rican Festival in the state of New Jersey. I wanted to show my support by coming to flag raising.”
Edwin Alicea, director of public safety for the City of Vineland, was the master of ceremonies for the event. He said the event was “extremely symbolic,” especially coming on Puerto Rican Constitution Day.
“A lot of people don’t understand why Puerto Ricans are so emotional about their flag,” Alicea told Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa. “There was a time in history were the Puerto Rican flag couldn’t even be shown. People would be fined and even arrested because of it. We’re proud to be Puerto Ricans and proud to be part of the American fabric.”
The event was marked by moments of silence of former Festival Puertorriqueno vice president Ana “Annie” Gonzalez Espinosa, 79, who died June 18. Young people huddled around her picture at times for photos. A large image of Espinosa stood next to the main podium, appearing to look over the crowd gathered at Vineland City Hall for the flag raising.
Espinosa, who was survived by daughters Marilyn Cintron and Evelyn LaBoy, was one of the enduring voices in Vineland for the Puerto Rican community. She moved to Vineland from the island in 1961 and co-founded Mujeres Latinas en Accion C.C. that provided assistance to women and families struggling in the area.
She worked with Puerto Rican Festival Committee for over 40 years and stepped into leadership roles several times in the last decade.
“Annie continued to support family, friends, and the community despite her own challenging circumstances,” her obituary said in June. “The void her loss creates can never be filled, but her message of kindness, community pride, and civic action will be carried forward by her family, friends, and the many lives she touched. The community has lost one of its greatest advocates and supporters.”
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