Luis Cruz wears his love for Puerto Rican music on his fingers.
Bandages cover split skin and dried blood — injuries earned from hundreds of thousands of beats on the leather of a conga drum.
But the wounds, which Cruz proudly shows, didn't stop the 46-year-old Hartford resident from throwing his soul into the beat Sunday afternoon at the state's 45th annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in Hartford.
Cruz used drumsticks to play the timbales — a set of snare drums with plastic and metal cowbells on top — with an impromptu group of musicians that set up at the parade's end point, Bushnell Park.
The percussionists don't have a name, but Carlos Acosta, 48, of Hartford, said they meet every weekend at Pope Park to perform. The men feel their way through the songs, changing beats often to create a melodic sound.
Acosta rotated between hitting a large cowbell with a wooden stick and playing the timbales, while about six other men rotated between playing the congas, the bongos and the planera, types of drums played with the hands. Singers stood in the center, clapping the beat and belting out lyrics about life and aging.
"We love music," Cruz said. "I was born with it."
Along Park, Washington and Trinity streets, different sounds of Puerto Rico floated through the warm air as the parade slowly pressed forward. Dancers on floats moved to salsa music, and marchers bounced to reggaeton music pumping from large speakers.
Aida Montes watched with pride as her granddaughter Jessica Olivo, a freshman at Hartford Public High School, danced the salsa in the parade. Montes had urged Olivo to learn salsa instead of hip hop as a way to learn more about her culture.
"Even though I was raised here, it just feels right," Montes said of the parade, which is attended by thousands of people with Puerto Rican roots each year.
Cars drove along the streets of Hartford with Puerto Rican flags on the hoods, and spectators wore red, white and blue to represent the flag. During the parade, soldiers from Hispanic American Veterans of Connecticut Inc. marched wearing fatigues. At a pause, one of the soldiers took the Puerto Rican flag and ran along the sides of the road waving it, to cheers and clapping. A woman on a float for Mega 910 radio sang into a microphone "Viva Puerto Rico!"
At a festival at Bushnell Park after the parade, vendors served traditional Puerto Rican food, such as fried plantains, rice and beans, beef patties, sweet corn pancakes and beef kebabs. Bands continued to play and people danced.
"I'm proud to be Puerto Rican!" Mingui "LaRubia" Dominga said, shaking her beaded Puerto Rican flag earrings as she talked. "I never forget my race. That's my people. I feel happy today because it's my day."
Dominga said she has lived in Connecticut for 23 years, but still feels strong ties to Puerto Rico.
"But I love this country, too. I love Connecticut," Dominga said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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