A report by Michael Wilson for The New York Times.
After weeks of controversy, with withdrawals by corporate sponsors and several state and city officials over the plans to honor a guest condemned by many as a former bomb-maker, the Puerto Rican Day Parade rolled up Fifth Avenue on Sunday without discord or disruption, its numbers thinner than in years past on both sides of the police barricades.
Parade organizers and spectators finally got the answer to the question of how the pulled sponsorships would play out in the streets. The crowds cheered each of the principal characters in the drama that had unfolded for weeks: Oscar López Rivera, a 74-year-old who was convicted of leading a bomb-planting Puerto Rican nationalist group, and whose lengthy prison sentence was commuted in January; Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, who embraced Mr. López Rivera’s placement in the parade; and Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose reservations about the divisive guest were invisible as he grinned and glad-handed up the avenue.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill were among those who skipped the parade, along with major sponsors like Goya Foods and Coca-Cola.
For Benjamín Vásquez, 60, who played guitar in the parade, the size of the procession could be felt in its speed. “This year took much less time to march,” he said. “Last year was more crowded.”
Some people said the presence of Mr. López Rivera kept spectators away.
“That Puerto Rican terrorista,” said Carmen Cruz-Hernandez, 75, who lives on the island and who said Sunday’s was her 54th parade and the least crowded she could remember. “For that reason, not a lot of people coming to the parade this year.”
Dolores Molina, 67, of the Bronx agreed. “The people that not came, they were scared of the terrorist,” she said. “I don’t see too much people. They were scared. I was scared, too.”
Ramón Rivera, 81, said this year’s parade was a victim of years of more aggressive crowd control than in the 1970s and ’80s. “On every block you have like 100 policemen bothering people,” Mr. Rivera said.
Still others blamed the weather, with temperatures rising to the mid-90s on a humid afternoon. Many spectators were seen leaving during the parade complaining of the heat.
While the crowds were four- and five-deep near Rockefeller Center and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, there were other places along the 35-block route where few families were watching from the barricades, with large gaps in between.
The parade kicked off a little before 11:30 a.m., with Ms. Mark-Viverito leading the march. A van arrived at the corner of East 46th Street soon after, and Mr. López Rivera emerged. He was whisked to a float blocks away from the head of the parade, where he originally had been invited to march as an honoree. Finally, Mr. de Blasio began marching, several blocks behind that float. At some point, Ms. Mark-Viverito doubled back to join Mr. López Rivera on his float, and Robin Levine, the speaker’s press secretary, said Ms. Mark-Viverito had given the mayor a hug. Mr. de Blasio had taken pains for weeks to keep political distance between himself and Mr. López Rivera’s presence in the parade, and the two men had no visible contact.
Looming in the background was the vote being taken in Puerto Rico on Sunday regarding its becoming the 51st state, an issue weighing on the minds of some in Manhattan.
“They’re American citizens. Why not be a part of America?” said Jerry Walker, 48, a deliveryman who lives in Queens. “I don’t see why they can’t be a state. It would be great for the American country.”
Another bystander, Jerry Gonzalez, 44, a truck driver from Fishkill, N.Y., said his negative feelings about the state of the American government outweighed any desire for statehood.
“I’m sure they can figure something out and pull through on their own,” he said. “If they become the 51st state they fall victim to the government of the U.S.”
Preliminary results of the vote suggested overwhelming support for statehood, but that is misleading, as opposition groups boycotted the vote. In any event, statehood would require an act of Congress, and Sunday’s vote had no legal weight.
Mr. López Rivera wore a T-shirt bearing a black-and-white image of the Puerto Rican flag. He clutched a small flag in one hand and beat his other fist against his chest between waves to bystanders.
It was a benign and starkly different image from that of the man the authorities said had helped oversee a bombing campaign in the 1970s and ’80s in New York and other cities for the F.A.L.N., the Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation.
On Jan. 24, 1975, the group bombed the historic Fraunces Tavern in Lower Manhattan, killing four people. On Aug. 3, 1977, bombs exploded in two Manhattan buildings, one killing a partner at a job-placement center. The victim had visited an office building at 150 East 42nd Street looking for openings, and a bomb exploded on the first floor. By day’s end, Mayor Abraham D. Beame, standing near shards of bloody glass, called the bombing “an outrageous act of terrorism.”
That building is blocks away from where the parade kicked off. That infamous day in the city’s history went unmarked Sunday morning, with two security guards working their regular shifts the sole occupants of the large, cool lobby.