As souped-up lowriders rolled by flying Puerto Rican flags and belting island classics, Daniel Sanchez stood curbside on Columbus Avenue and recorded the scene on a cellphone camera.
Sanchez left Puerto Rico 13 years ago, but as he watched Sunday’s Puerto Rican Festival Parade, he said the island hasn’t completely left him.
“I’ll never forget where I came from,” said Sanchez, who now lives in West Roxbury. “I’m proud of my heritage.”
From the crowds of people carrying flags and the Reggaeton music floating across patio barbecues, it seemed he was far from alone. Even on an overcast day, the parade highlighted a festive celebration for what organizers said is Massachusetts’ fastest-growing Latino population.
This year’s festival took place with a charged political backdrop, as Puerto Ricans are preparing to vote in a referendum for the first time since 1998 whether to change the island’s status as a US territory and become a state, or even seek independence. The November referendum has two questions: one that simply asks whether Puerto Ricans want to keep the island’s current status or change it; the second will ask them to pick either statehood, independence, or remaining a commonwealth under a new arrangement.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a Puerto Rican without an opinion on it,” said Councilor at Large Felix G. Arroyo as he waved to constituents from the parade route.
Sanchez, who voted for statehood in the island’s last referendum, said he would like to see the island choose that option this time around. But he doubts that a majority of Puerto Ricans agree with him.
A territory of the United States since 1898, Puerto Rico is named by its Constitution as a “freely associated state.” Puerto Ricans are American citizens who elect a representative to Congress, but that representative can only introduce legislation and vote in congressional committees. Island residents cannot vote for president. Most are not required to pay federal income taxes.
Supporters of statehood say that closer ties with the mainland economy would bolster growth on the island, and they also say it would afford fair representation to an island that sends a large number of residents into the armed forces.
Opponents, however, say becoming a state could lead to a loss of a culture, particularly the Spanish language. They also say the change would bring economic drawbacks, such as federal income taxes.
Polls suggest statehood has significant support but lacks an electoral majority. In 1998, the “none of the above” option on the referendum received just more than 50 percent of votes while the statehood option got 46.5 percent of the vote.
Governor Luis Fortuño supports statehood, and last December signed legislation calling for a new referendum this year.
If more than half of the island’s residents approve one of the status changes, Puerto Rican officials will petition the federal government to grant the switch. Congress and the White House would have to approve legislation for Puerto Rico to become the 51st state.
Just off Sunday’s parade route, Jaime Rodriguez, who left the island with his family when he was 13, said he hopes voters will keep Puerto Rico a US territory.
“I like it the way it is,” Rodgriguez said. He said closer ties with the mainland could mean the loss of the Spanish language, while looser ties would make conditions on the island resemble those of Cuba, both of which he fears.
Like many, however, Rodgriguez preferred on Sunday to discuss culture and celebration rather than the politics surrounding November’s plebiscite.
He spoke proudly of his decades of participation in Puerto Rican Festival celebrations, and said he still has the traffic ticket from 1977 for burning rubber in a souped-up Toyota Corolla. These days, he prefers walking in the parade and encouraging those on the sidewalk to cheer.
At the parade, Jayarmani and Evangelin Maldonado, 6 and 4, played with a much smaller flag as older sister Wanda, 9, looked on. Their parents, Edgar and Wanda Maldonado of Dorchester, are from the mainland, but each of their parents grew up in Puerto Rico and instilled a sense of cultural belonging, the older Wanda Maldonado said.
As the three children played nearby, she said she wanted them to share the same cultural identity. “We’re passing it down to them, and I hope they pass it down in the future,” Wanda said.