EAST HARLEM – Angel René, 77 years old, lifts himself out of his chair to walk over to an elderly woman who is shaking a pair of maracas emblazoned with the Puerto Rican. As he invites her to dance, and she promptly gets up and the couple disappear into a large crowd, all moving to the music created by a live salsa band. Most people here are local boricuas – Puerto Ricans – of all ages, who come to socialize, eat, play games, and enjoy the rest of the summer.
This is the East Harlem Multicultural Festival, a free, open-air event which takes place every Saturday from June through September between noon and 6pm. This happens regardless of the weather, as it takes place underneath the shelter of the elevated Metro-North line train tracks on 116th street and Park Avenue. The plaza is known as la Placita de la Marqueta, which used to be the center of a much larger, thriving marketplace that stretched down to 111th street. In the 50s, this was the social hub of Spanish Harlem. Today, it stands empty most of the time.
The East Harlem Festival was created ten years ago by Albert Medina, the former president of the non-profit group East River North Renewal, Inc., a charity dedicated to bringing more affordable housing to the increasingly gentrified district. Since Medina’s death earlier this year, his niece, Celia Ramirez, has taken over his position. She explains, “For our people here in East Harlem, our culture and music are dying. I’m going to bring it back”. To do this, Ramirez makes use of her experience as a former caterer: “I always say, wherever you go, when there’s food and music, people will be drawn to it.”
For many local boricuas, it is especially the music that bring home the culture they grew up in. Frankie Negron, one of the security guards at the event, explains: “Cos I’m a Latino, salsa was embedded in me since I was a kid. My mum used to sing and dance to me when I was a bean.” Looking around, he observes, “This is where most of my people are.”
In fact, Spanish Harlem is famous for its salsa legacy: Renowned salsa musicians like Tito Puente, Marc Anthony and Eddie Palmieri were born and raised here. This heritage used to be kept alive by numerous social clubs in the area, where people would dance, drink and listen to salsa over a game of dominoes or pool. “They had social clubs on every other block. The social clubs kept people together”, says Negron. Another local, James Catala, agrees; “Harlem’s always been about social clubs”. He comes to the festival at La Marqueta because “it brings that atmosphere back”.
While the social clubs have disappeared in part due to increasing gentrification of the area, efforts to keep La Marqueta alive are all the more important. Ramirez proudly says, “The festival has always been free, we’ve never charged anyone.”. But this doesn’t come without difficulties. Leasing La Placita de la Marqueta from New York City Economic Development Corporation entails a series of bureaucratic hurdles, including various liability insurances, and sound permits from the police department. “I go through this every year”, Ramirez says, “Imagine how stressful it is.”
It’s also difficult to finance. Ramirez explains that except for one year when she applied for a participatory budget from the city, the festival has been solely sponsored by East River North Renewal Inc. Because donations are limited, she relies on help from the community to keep the festival going: “My security crew and my cleaning crew, they all get paid. That’s not to say much. To me, they’re all volunteers, they are sacrificing their time to be here as part of this.” Hiring musicians is expensive too, and although Ramirez always tries to get a live band, sometimes a DJ has to fill in.
Despite this, Ramirez is confident that she can keep the festival going. In fact, her end goal is even more ambitious. She says that her and her uncle’s vision “would be to see La Marqueta become La Marqueta again”. There are many locals who would surely like to witness a rebirth of the old marketplace in Spanish Harlem, but this is a challenging endeavor. The salsa festival is a start, and it’s been a good run this year. For Gina Dejesus, who grew up in Spanish Harlem, it’s simply about keeping the community alive. “I’m really grateful for this”, she says, “it shows that we can come together.”