When Pedro Julio Serrano first went to the annual National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City nearly one decade ago, he had only recently arrived from the island a few years before. He went with a group of friends, carrying a modified Puerto Rican flag with the colors of the rainbow replacing the traditional red, white, and blue. To some, the flag, along with his general presence, was an insult, a sign of disrespect. Those people told Pedro Julio he should leave. That experience would be marked by anti-gay slurs directed at him in English and Spanish. People even threw objects at him, including bottles. “It was very intense, you know?” he tells me.
Fast forward almost ten years later and the Puerto Rican diaspora has convened in East Harlem to discuss the current debt crisis facing the island. After two full days attending panels and keynote speeches, there is one final plenary roundtable. Edwin Melendez, Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, is asking panel members to summarize one-hour discussions on topics ranging from the importance of social media in fostering awareness of the economic crisis to the role of youth in developing innovative solutions. It’s a room filled with artists, politicians, academics, war heroes, religious leaders, journalists, students, lawyers, and so on.
Then Edwin asks Pedro Julio, moderator of the LGBT panel, to speak. By that afternoon, it had already been something of a historic day. Over 30 Puerto Rican elected officials in the U.S. had met earlier at Federal Hall near Wall St. to approve the National Puerto Rican Agenda. Then the Archbishop of San Juan, Monsignor Roberto González Nieves, gave an emotional keynote address, one that brought many in the audience to tears.
The moment was not lost on Pedro Julio. “To see us as equals and to be seated at the table, helping to look for solutions for Puerto Rico, that shows how far we’ve come in terms of acceptance of the LGBT community.” He spoke about the panel of course, the history of the Puerto Rican LGBT community, and his own work as a human rights activist and founder of the organization Puerto Rico Para Tod@s. Then he made an unexpected announcement. The 59th annual Puerto Rican Day Parade would be dedicated to the LGBT community’s struggle. This announcement coincided with a District Court decision earlier in April that overturned a prior ruling declaring that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling did not apply to Puerto Rico.
Family unity and acceptance are part of a larger theme that includes the LGBT community in this year’s parade, something that took years for Pedro Julio and his own family to sort through after he came out: “When I came out of the closet, there was a rejection on the part of my parents, denial. But with time, with love, with understanding, with those family ties, they were able to go from rejection and denial to tolerance, where we talked about it, but not much, not in detail, and after, we made it to acceptance […] and now, it’s gotten to the point of celebration. They’ve become activists.”
The reaction to the announcement was overwhelmingly positive, eliciting a strong applause from the room. This particular moment had been germinating for close to a year when Pedro Julio made the announcement. After the 2015 parade, the parade board sought more opportunities to expand upon themes such as social justice and environmental justice, as well as last year’s theme honoring Afro-Boricua heritage. The fight for marriage equality coincided with this burgeoning sense of progressive themes underpinning the parade. According to board member Louis Maldonado, this was a conscious effort, one that began in 2014 when the entire board was replaced.
So in early January, the idea to do something like honor the struggles of the LGBT community was already on their radar. When proposed to the fifteen member board by chairwoman Lorraine Cortés-Vasquez, it was ratified immediately according to Maldonado. Pedro Julio, a Senior Advisor of the New York City Council, received a phone call to discuss the possibility and several weeks later, a letter formally recognizing him as an honoree. Louis Maldonado also singled out Pedro Julio’s outspoken work as an advocate and activist both in New York and in Puerto Rico, in explaining the decision. He would be receiving the same honor that Lin-Manuel Miranda had earned the year before–orgullo puertorriqueño, or the pride of Puerto Rico.
According to chairwoman Cortes-Vasquez, “a historical moment” is being recognized both within the Puerto Rican community and throughout the U.S. More specifically, acceptance of loved ones in the LGBT community is becoming a public, rather than private event for families.
So on Sunday, June 12th, Pedro Julio will ride in a car down 5th Avenue surrounded by members of his family. The honor is also a reminder of that first experience: “In the same parade where I was received with homophobia and insults, this year, I’m going to be marching as an honoree.” He then added, “It’s not a personal triumph, it’s a collective achievement.”
It’s also a question of love, respect, inclusion, and solidarity–Puerto Rican values according to him. A lot has changed in just under ten years. The timing of this honor also coincides with a much different experience the year before. Pedro Julio again went to the Puerto Rican Day Parade, but this time nobody yelled at him. Nobody threw a bottle either. Instead, people expressed their support. They took photos with him that he posted to his Instagram. Like the newly adopted slogan of the Puerto Rican Parade says, “Un pueblo, muchas voces.”