By Daniel Winner | Contributor for AC JosepH Media
HAMMONTON — The sound of salsa and merengue along with the delicious aroma of traditional Latin dishes filled the air as dedicated members of the Puerto Rican Civic Association, their families, and supporters gathered for the 64th annual Labor Day Festival on Saturday.
The festival covered two weekends — the last weekend in August and the first weekend in September, which included Labor Day weekend. Visitors of all ages filled the PRCA’s clubhouse and grounds at 367 Old Forks Road, the unofficial heart of the Puerto Rican community in northwestern Atlantic County.
The Puerto Rican heart beat strongly in what is called the “Blueberry Capital of the World.” On Saturday, Sept. 2, music played nonstop on a stage outside the community hall. People came and went all day long absorbing the atmosphere that makes Hammonton’s Latino community special. The festivities lasted until Sunday, Sept. 3.
The celebration began on Sunday, Aug. 27 with a Catholic Mass, which led up to a parade that culminated at Hammonton Town Hall. There, the flag of Puerto Rico was raised alongside the flag of the United States.
The flag-raising is always a proud moment for the local Puerto Rican community, PRCA members said.
“It was very meaningful,” said PRCA Marshall Alberto Nogue Sr. “It was a place in our community and in our town. I’m a lot younger than a lot of the older guys, and I think they appreciated it, knowing that it came from the town through the mayor and that everybody has been accepted in our community.”
Labor Day weekend saw the bulk of the celebration at the organization’s clubhouse. Latin music and dance such as salsa, merengue and bachata filled the venue, accompanied by the smell of familiar Puerto Rican foods such as sancocho, pastelillos, alcapurrias and pasteles.
Photos by Meredith Winner, Mer-Made Photography
One of the organization’s past presidents and senior members Elvin Rodriguez was honored by the PRCA with a Most Dedicated Member Award and certificate of appreciation for his many years of outstanding contribution.
“It was beautiful,” said Rodriguez when asked about the raising of the flag at Town Hall. “I was proud.”
The Puerto Rican Civic Association of Hammonton was founded in 1959 by a group of Puerto Ricans led by Fernando “Freddy” Melendez as a community center for the local Puerto Rican community.
“Mr. Melendez wanted to have a place for the Puerto Ricans to gather,” said President Edwin Negroni. “He also wanted to introduce this community to the locals and show them that we did bring not only the hard times they were coming with — like trying to work — but to mingle among the community and show them that we have other things to bring to the table. That’s why we’re here today, celebrating that idea. That idea has kept us going.”
The women in the community also played a major role in the association’s foundation.
“There was a group of females … called ‘las gamas auxiliares’ or the ‘auxiliary ladies.’ These ladies at the time, like females in any other organization, were not mingling with the men,” Negroni said. “They were not allowed to.
“So, what they did was, they sneaked through the back door, you could say, and came up with a clever idea. They helped with cooking and fundraising for the organization. As they did that, they decided to then, put on a celebration of a Puerto Rican weekend. They are the ones who get the credit for the Puerto Rican weekend celebration. It used to be a week, but today it’s just weekends.”
Negroni clarified the circumstances of the festival’s two-week schedule.
“We don’t have as many members now as there used to be,” he said. “There were more Puerto Ricans visiting the community, which we don’t have anymore. What we have now is mingling. Everyone is mixed. Some show up, some of them don’t.”
Attendees of the festival were treated like family, regardless of background or relationship to the Puerto Rican community — which included hugs and smiles.
“In South Jersey, there’s a lot of Puerto Ricans who don’t look Puerto Rican,” explained Negroni. “You could be Puerto Ricans. That’s how much we’re mixed. If you go to Puerto Rico, and they see you over there, you are considered to be Puerto Rican. We do not have that ethnic identity.”
According to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, as of 2014 New Jersey was the third state with the largest stateside Puerto Rican population, behind only New York and Florida. They comprise 5.24% of the state, which is about half a million people and make up the majority of New Jersey Latinos at 27.08%.
Current PRCA board members include President Edwin Negroni, Vice President Wanda Hernandez, Secretary Lillian Pagan, Treasurer Jeannie Valentin; and Marshall Albert Nogue, Sr. Myrna Santiago serves as Public Relations Representative for the ground and runs its social media pages. Her father was one of the first presidents of PRCA.
“I’ve been very, very, very fortunate to land here in Hammonton,” Negroni beamed. “It’s an amazing place; it’s a small community with a great heart.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Daniel Winner has a double major in Religious Studies and Japanese from Penn State University and has traveled internationally to the Far East on several occasions. His insights on Buddhism and Asian culture give a unique view of historical and modern trends. He will be serving as a contributor for Front Runner New Jersey.
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