Coordinators plan to keep festival safe, create positive image

ROCHESTER — Coordinators of the 41st-annual Puerto Rican Festival say they will continue to educate the community about the need to maintain a positive image for the three-day event after arrests once again took place in nearby neighborhoods on the closing night.

"We’re tried a lot of different efforts," said Ida Perez, the festival board’s travel and lodge coordinator. "But we have no … other choice (but to continue) trying to come up with new strategies."

She said that prior to the festival held July 30 through Aug. 1 at Frontier Field’s VIP lot, board members and other volunteers walked door to door handing out postcards and posters that encouraged the community to "celebrate with pride." Perhaps such efforts should start a few weeks sooner to reach more people, Perez said.

The other challenge is that some of the people who cause disruptions — Rochester police arrested more than 24 people for criminal mischief and disorderly conduct incidents, according to a spokesman — are new to the community or not familiar with the history of the festival or the community’s heritage, Perez noted. Some of the people causing disruptions don’t even come to the festival, said Orlando Ortiz, the festival board president, who added that he knew this from speaking with some of the people who were arrested last year.

"People who know the festival are not going to do anything to hurt it," Perez said.

The board invested about $30,000 to cover security costs for the festival including hiring a private firm and members of the Rochester Police Department who provided traffic patrol and onsite staff to keep festivalgoers safe, said Margarita Reyes, the festival board treasurer. During a press conference on Aug. 2 at Frontier Field, Ortiz said that there were no incidents on site and the festival drew a record-breaking 25,000 people over its three days.

The lack of incidents at the festival itself shows that the board’s concerted efforts, in addition to security, did make a difference, said John Nobrega. He said that his company, J and T Security, had about 40 of its security officers on site every day of the festival. Last year, the company employees handled some minor incidents on the festival site.

"It was very positive, which is the main goal, to have it nice and peaceful," Nobrega said of this year’s festival. "The feedback was that everybody had a great time. Unfortunately, we can’t control what happens outside."

Perez noted that members of Pathways to Peace, a community organization that works with troubled youths, also provided additional assistance by maintaining eagle eyes on the entire site and identifying gang members who tried to enter the festival.

"We do work very closely with the RPD (Rochester Police Department), exhausting everything we can do to defuse what happens on Clinton (Avenue)," she said, which is a couple of miles from the festival site and which is where most of the incidents take place. She noted that this work with police will continue.

The festival board’s events in the community throughout the year to promote its positive message, said Ortiz, "so the community at large can learn and share … all that there is to the culture of Puerto Rico."

New events this year included a health fair sponsored by Lifetime Care, which provided health screenings for more than 60 festivalgoers according to Lifetime’s Alfredo González, and a 5K race and walk, which drew about 159 participants, said Al Burgos, one of the race’s co-organizers. The race benefited the Rochester Latino Rotary Club’s literacy initiatives.

"We see it as building a foundation," Burgos said of this year’s race. "We want to make it a tradition."

Lifetime also will continue with the health fair next year and also will work with other health organizations to tie into other Latino-related community events year-round.

"We need to do a better job of creating awareness about health with our folks," he added.

Juan Martínez of Syracuse took part in and won the race and also participated in the health fair by taking advantage of its blood pressure and glucose screenings. Although he is usually on top of his health matters, Martínez said that the health fair is a great idea for Latinos who may not get preventive care because of insurance issues or lack of information.

Martínez said that after the race he stayed for the festival and is glad he did. A New Jersey native, he said that the atmosphere was more in line with what he would see in his home state.

"This is a lot better (than the Latino festival held in Syracuse)," he said. "It’s the best I’ve seen in upstate New York. … The food is good. And they have some good artists we don’t get in Syracuse."

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