Why I Marched on 5th Avenue with a Machete and a Clown Nose

The jíbaros platoon at the Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 11. (Photo by Melvin Audaz)

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a link and to clarify a couple of points.]

On Sunday, under a sweltering 95-degree sun, I put on a red clown nose, a pava – a traditional Puerto Rican straw hat commonly used by jíbaros, or peasant farmers – grabbed a wood machete, and marched in the Puerto Rican Day Parade alongside a group of fellow Puerto Rican-born artists. A much-revered and familiar figure in Puerto Rican culture, the jíbaro is considered the epitome of the hardworking, dispossessed people of the country, exploited by the rich, foreign owners of the land.

The organizers of the clown platoon – an informal group of collaborators from different artistic disciplines, led by actors Israel Lugo, Andrea Martínez, Yussef Soto-Villarini and Roy Sánchez-Vahamonde – were brought all the way from Puerto Rico by La Marqueta Retoña, a cultural center located in East Harlem funded by the New York City Council.

Their task was to organize a performance for this year’s parade that recreated the immersive, role-playing style of protest that has attracted attention on the island. Their form of protest has taken on particular resonance during the recent wave of demonstrations in opposition to draconian “austerity” measures imposed by a financial oversight board named by Obama’s White House to address the country’s $72-billion-dollar debt.

(Photo by Melvin Audaz)

Back home, the performers dress up as “The Clown Police,” wearing red noses and cardboard “bullet-proof” vests, spraying people with silly string instead of pepper spray, and carrying brooms as weapons, in reference to San Juan’s municipal government’s promise to “sweep the streets” to do away with undesirables. Once at the site of the demonstration, the clown cops stand side-by-side with the real ones, and interact with them and the protesters in a light, satirical tone to reveal the absurd rationale of the government’s rhetoric, effectively defusing tension.

The Puerto Rican Day Parade version, it was decided, would feature a platoon of clown jíbaros and jíbaras instead, dubbed, on this day, Jíbaros en Resistencia. The change was made to avoid giving the impression that the characters were criticizing the police association that refused to appear at the event due to its original intention to honor Oscar López Rivera, the recently-freed pro-independence militant who spent 35 years in jail in the U.S. for seditious conspiracy.

 “At a time when Puerto Rico is undergoing a period of scarcity, what better icon [than the jíbaro] to spark a reflection on the basic rights of our people: home, food, health and education?” the artists asked in the official description of their intervention at the parade, adding that they “employ clowning technique to bring a message of justice, equality, love and freedom.”

As the group of between 40 and 50 jíbaras and jíbaros – most of us were born in Puerto Rico, and migrated after graduating college – walked in formation along Fifth Avenue, the crowd enthusiastically read the words we had painted the night before on our machetes to spell out our message: education, freedom, justice, health, resistance, solidarity. In line with the cheerful environment, spectators had the most fun with common Puerto Rican curse words such as “puñeta” and “coño, despierta” – roughly translated as “wake up, goddammit” – which has become an anti-colonialist slogan in Puerto Rico.

As we marched, the clown “commander” called out his orders, which we had codified over the course of a two-day workshop at the Johnson Community Center in East Harlem. During that time, we got acquainted with clowning techniques and collectively came up with movements and commands that we thought would look striking and that expressed our frustration with the current social and economic crisis on the island. New York-based Puerto Rican actress Yaraní del Valle, like many of us a University of Puerto Rico alum, coordinated the training.

As we approached 57th Street, a last-minute new command was introduced by platoon leader Israel Lugo, who originated the clown police in Puerto Rico in 2009. When we reached Trump Tower, we performed the specially-crafted salute, which included an Italian salute, after which we turned around, bent over and showed our machete between our legs, pointing at the building. A man-in-a-suit standing told us to move along, but our commanders decided that we needed to repeat the gesture to make sure our sentiment was clear.

(Photo by Melvin Audaz)

So we did it again and continued marching.

This year’s parade was not the usual sea of red, white and blue; there was quite a bit of black too. In recent years, a black and white version of the Puerto Rican flag has become a symbol of popular discontent over the island’s situation, and has become ubiquitous on social media and, as the parade floats demonstrated, everywhere else. The customary joyful salsa dancing, the majorettes, the celebrities and beauty queens waving from their floats were in attendance, as always, but many floats reflected a grittier, darker aesthetic, and edgy, bizarre puppets marched right after traditional ones.

The audience was mostly supportive. Most people enthusiastically yelled out expressions of gratitude, and I heard phrases such as “¡Jíbaro hasta la muerte!” – “Jíbaro till I die!” –; “¡Viva la UPI!” – “Long live the University of Puerto Rico!” and even “Viva Puerto Rico libre y socialista” – “Long live Puerto Rico, free and socialist” a very popular slogan in the 1970s.

Some fellow platoon members did say, however, that they heard spectators critiquing the anti-colonial message, with one of them yelling out: “Didn’t you study thanks to a Pell grant?” and another asking if we were siding with López Rivera. No one, though, seemed to miss the disgruntled commercial sponsors who withdrew their support because of the controversy over López Rivera,and who every year litter Fifth Ave. with their cardboard fans and other merchandising.

When I first learned that these artists – some of them old friends and fellow theater makers – were coming to New York to recreate their striking performance protest here and that they were calling on like-minded Puerto Rican-born artists to put their bodies and voices out there for the island, I was in awe.

These are artists who have remained in Puerto Rico, stubbornly defying the pessimism and the frustration they nonetheless admit to feeling. I am humbled by their commitment, their assertiveness and their agency. Street theater is grueling, thankless and exhausting. Sunday was going to be the hottest day of the year so far. I wanted to be there.

They asked us to join them because they know our hearts are broken too. As Lugo told me:“I thought: ‘If Puerto Ricans living in New York invite us, then it makes sense to have a “platoon” in New York.’ The oversight board meets in New York, I remember seeing that people here were staging demonstrations for Oscar quite often… So, it made sense to have representation here.”

Even though some of us had not seen each other in decades, we all knew why we were there and we had a shorthand that our shared culture and training awarded us. If we did not already know each other, we quickly became friends, and we marched without a hitch. Despite the dire circumstances that brought us together this time, we had fun.

Tired and satisfied, after about three hours marching, we all said goodbye warmly but not definitively, because we know full well that we will likely meet again sometime soon to continue this century-old fight against colonialism.

Karina Casiano is a New York-based actress born in Puerto Rico.

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