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Jaslene Gonzalez celebrates her heritage in the Puerto Rican Parade

Jaslene Gonzalez

Jaslene Gonzalez

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Updated: June 27, 2013 8:34PM

In the United States, there are nearly 4 million Puerto Ricans, and I’m deeply proud to be one of them. For me, being Puerto Rican means being part of a significant history, culture and language. It means my family cooking together, sharing our stories. It’s also about Puerto Rican folkloric tradition, like bomba and plena — the strong beats and sounds that are thought to have been derived from West Africa, where many Puerto Ricans came from originally.

I believe it’s important to celebrate our heritage, which is why I’ve always loved attending Chicago’s Puerto Rican Parade. It brings out celebrities and politicians alike, and demonstrates the city’s beauty, ethics and culture. And by celebrating Puerto Rican culture along with Chicago’s, I believe we’re integrating the two, making it easier for us to work together and communicate with one another.

This year, I was invited to stand on the Maxima Radio float, something I was truly honored to do. Now that I travel around the world for my modeling career, I sometimes worry that I’m losing my connection to my Latino community in Humboldt Park. So being a part of this year’s parade felt particularly important to me.

I was especially touched because for the very first time, the parade had been moved from downtown Chicago to Division Street, where two 59-foot-tall Puerto Rican flags stand to mark our community. Division Street is where I grew up — I was born at St. Mary of Nazareth Hospital, just one block away from the parade’s new starting point.

The area still brings me fond memories of my childhood. Back then, the Puerto Rican Parade was my family’s favorite annual event. We prepared and looked forward to that day more than anything else I can remember.

On the day itself, my siblings and I would board the floats downtown dressed in traditional bomba dresses, and once the floats reached Humboldt Park, we’d change into costumes and perform with our dance group, Viva la Gente. Later in the day, we’d put on crowns and walk around the park, waving to passersby. We felt like the most important little girls there, like it was our duty to make a name for ourselves and represent our Latino community everywhere we went. On the morning of June 15, right before this summer’s Puerto Rican Parade, it started to rain. My publicist called to tell me that a few floats had canceled, and after much debate with my mother, I decided not to go.

I was so disappointed. But a minute later, my highly optimistic brother got up from his seat and said, “Let’s just go and check things out for ourselves.” I felt a little reluctant, but for some reason, we went.

As we approached Division Street, I could see that the parade had, in fact, started. The rain had slowed down, and the sun was coming out — and everybody was slowly but surely coming out in blue, red and white, wearing bomba dresses, waving their flags.

I got on the float with Maxima Radio and paraded down Division Street. It was so much fun. We had the best music and energy on our float, and I was so happy to see so many members of my community whom I hadn’t seen in years.

And I was even happier to see that the community I grew up in still felt like my home, that mi gente (my people) were out to celebrate, rain or shine. Even though my dancing days were in the past, the festivities weren’t, and neither was my connection to my Latino community. I will always be up with my people. QUE VIVA PUERTO RICO!

Jaslene Gonzalez donated her fee for writing this column to Sarah’s Inn,

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