Refreshing the tradition of Fiestas Patronales with Holyoke celebration

  • Harold Malave, then 2, holds the flag of Puerto Rico during a gathering held to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria and support Puerto Rican refugees, Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 outside Templo Eben-ezer in Holyoke. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Isaacvp/via Wikimedia—

For the Gazette 
Published: 7/30/2022 7:03:26 AM
Modified: 7/30/2022 7:00:16 AM

HOLYOKE — Melvin Romero recalls his blended family history, steeped in equal parts Puerto Rican ancestry and Holyoke belonging.

In 1958, his grandparents, were among of the first Puerto Ricans to work in the city’s paper and silk mills and to settle in Holyoke, he said, now considered the city with the largest Puerto Rican population per capita outside the island.

A member of the planning committee for the city’s coming Fiestas Patronales, a traditional Catholic festival celebrated throughout Latin America, Romero believes wholeheartedly in the second wind of the Fiestas, one experienced by expats and their families living far from home, the renewal of tradition from generation to generation.

“Holyoke is getting younger and younger, and this tradition was something we wanted to refresh. We’re starting something new from something old and passing this down to our children, and also the pride we have of being Puerto Rican,” he said.

Fiestas Patronales are a major cultural and religious festival in Puerto Rico carried by percussion-driven rhythms including traditional bomba and plena and a colorful wardrobe of Afro-Caribbean-inspired dresses.

Fiestas Patronales de Holyoke will take place Aug. 4-10 on Dwight Street. The event is primarily nightlife-oriented, with a slate of performers scheduled after 5 p.m. each evening.

Across the island, each township consecrates its celebration to a patron saint. In Holyoke on Sunday, two weeks ahead of the Fiestas, white-robed clergymen led a procession of congregants from St. Jerome Parish towing an effigy, or “imagen,” of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Holyoke’s chosen saint.

The emblem of the virgin Guadalupe holds historical resonance with Holyoke’s Hispanic population, who make up 54% of the city’s total population. The Spanish-speaking congregation at Our Lady of Guadalupe parish was once housed at Sacred Heart Church, which closed in 2017 as the result of building disrepair.

St. Jerome Church on Hampden Street, home to a majority Irish congregation, ceded its facility to displaced Our Lady congregants, and the merger between both churches and a third parish became final in 2021.

“The merge,” said Mayor Joshua A. Garcia, “created a new family that is both Irish and Puerto Rican under one faith, the Catholic faith — there isn’t anything more Holyoke than that.”

Garcia has partially funded the festival through the city’s Parks and Recreation Committee, whose budget includes a line item to fund public stages. The committee has used these discretionary funds before, including to support last year’s Paper City Food Festival.

Holyoke’s Fiestas will include performances from a number of bachata, merengue and salsa singers, and will line the length of three blocks downtown with food trucks and vendors.

Not only will the event directly stimulate businesses involved, but it has the potential to revive the local economy, as attendees from as far south as Connecticut search for accommodations and explore the area in the daytime.

This year, Fiestas Patronales will represent more than religious prostration, community togetherness, and public letting-loose.

The four-day event also explicitly celebrates Garcia’s election as the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, a milestone that Romero, a retired Holyoke police officer who incidentally was Garcia’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program supervisor, said he never doubted would come to pass.

“[Garcia] came to my house and I told him during the primaries ‘You’re [going to] win.’ I knew he would — he’s young, he’s lived in Holyoke all his life, he’s a humble person, a smart kid, Holyoke needed something new and he was it,” said Romero. “I told him ‘you better be ready because we’re ready.’”

During Romero’s 36 years of service, he worked security at over 30 festivals involving the closure of streets. His role on the planning committee draws on that experience and his ability to liaise with Police Chief David Pratt.

Food trucks are spaced 10 feet apart to prevent potentially malfunctioning propane tanks from sparking uncontainable fires; the stage is positioned in an area where attendees can enjoy performances from any vantage point, avoiding dense flocks of people.

Romero stressed the importance of safety precautions and detailed evacuation plans at events that attract a lot of foot traffic, such as block parties and parades, which recently have been shown to not be impervious to the scourge of mass shootings besieging the nation.

“These days, no place is safe. We do our part, we do what we can to live without fear and celebrate without being afraid,” he said.

Other committee members, like Melvin Sanchez, feel no inkling of apprehension, only excitement.

A broadcast salesman by trade, he has cooperated with the cause by focusing on fundraising. Sponsorships range from contributions of as little as $3,000 to as much as $20,000, the largest contribution coming from platinum sponsor Holyoke Medical Center.

“I can’t express this enough, how supportive the city and the community has been of the event. There has been a very, very, very positive response and we’re hoping to become a premiere event in Holyoke,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez, who was born and raised in Massachusetts, has never attended a Fiestas Patronales himself, but his indelible childhood memories of Budweiser horses and newborn chickadees trotted out at state fairs and expositions across the Northeast echo the sanctity and significance of the Fiestas felt by Puerto Rican elders, expats of the island.

He lamented the absence of open-air parlor games and another crowd-pleaser, the greased pole climb, at this year’s Fiesta, but emphasized the event’s steadfast fidelity to tradition within the confines of what felt appropriate, adaptable, and attainable by the planning committee.

The event is set to take place in a three-block radius downtown, a stretch of concrete that isn’t exactly conducive to digging and padding a hole in which to anchor the greased pole, but Sanchez said future Fiestas Patronales de Holyoke could see these festival fixtures return.

Having obtained proper permitting from the city, having strategized security measures with city law enforcement, and having won a strong vote of confidence from 20 local sponsors, Sanchez and the enthusiastic core of eight Holyokers helming the event’s planning committee are gearing up for a successful and long-lasting new tradition.

“Fiestas Patronales de Holyoke is creating a new memory for families in this area, for children who, most of them, have never seen this celebration in person on the island and their parents and grandparents, who have that memory. We’re creating a new cultural mark,” he said.

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