Hundreds of thousands of spectators and marchers filled Fifth Avenue last Sunday for the annual Puerto Rican Day parade, one of New York City’s most popular ethnic celebrations. As floats topped with singers, dancers, beauty queens and politicians made their way down the grand boulevard, a crowd estimated at nearly two million lined the sun-drenched expanse between 44th and 88th Streets.

With an increased deployment of police—in keeping with post-September 11 security arrangements and incidents in 2000 when women were groped in Central Park by parade goers—spectators were sent through a maze of barricades in and around Madison Avenue and other surrounding streets. Many stretches of sidewalk along Fifth Avenue were closed off.

“We had to walk through Central Park from 61st down to 90th. When we got there, the cops said we had to go back and around. This is crazy!” said one female spectator, walking with her daughter.

Peddlers were selling a plethora of goods decorated in Puerto Rico’s red, white and blue–from whistles to headbands to parasols. Especially prevalent were Puerto Rican flags, thousands of which were raised at a time as various favorite acts swept down the avenue.

Others knotted the flag and wore it as a cape. Many women were wearing shirts with the slogan, “The Hottest Girls Come from Puerto Rico.” They were undoubtedly hot, as temperatures soared into the 90s under a blazing hot sun.

The chant of “Boricua,” a name derived from the indigenous people of the island, now an affectionate term of identity, rippled throughout the crowds all day.

While the parade lacked a distinct contingent of gay and lesbian marchers, many gays and lesbian spectators, often with their children and partners, attended the parade.

Phil Velez, of the Latino Gay Men of New York, an advocacy group, said that with a variety of gay pride events to attend, the group could not afford the Puerto Rican parade’s $250 entrance fee.

“We are a community grassroots association. so funds are limited within the association,” said Velez, the group’s chairman, adding that the group has “never marched under our own banner” in the Puerto Rican Day parade.

Starting back in 1989, a contingent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender marchers would gather to participate in the parade, a practice stopped this year.

“Our groups have always felt very welcomed by the Puerto Rican Day Parade Committee,” Valez said. “Over the years LGMNY just realized that there was not a dire need to march in this parade. We have nothing left to prove.”

Latino Gay Men of New York marched in Queens’ gay pride parade in Jackson Heights on June 5 and will participate in Manhattan’s main parade Fifth Avenue parade on June 26 that commemorates the Stonewall riots.

Last Sunday, political office seekers were out in full force working for the Latino vote. Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer gallivanted down the street shouting, “Boricua,” while Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his announced Democratic rivals also greeted voters. Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent who hopes to be the city’s first Latino mayor, took his time working the throngs of parade goers, shaking countless hands.

The other candidates vying for the Democratic mayoral nomination—Manhattan Borough Pres. C. Virginia Fields, Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller whose district is on the Upper East Side—were also on hand.

The city has hosted a Puerto Rican day parade since 1958. Since then, with the disbursal of Puerto Ricans throughout other parts of the United States, many other cities also host parades. Census figures indicate that more people of Puerto Ricans descent live in New York City than in Puerto Rico itself.

Police reported that there were more 170 arrests for a variety of offenses, including gang-related activity like an attempt by the Latin Kings to bust into the parade and march as a contingent. In another incident, on 85th Street and Madison Avenue, a suspect was arrested after lacerating a police officer’s hand with a razor blade.

On Monday, police disclosed that two narcotics detectives assigned to the parade duty—Edmond Olivacce, 37 and Bernard Dixon, 36—have been suspended without pay after getting drunk on duty.

Ralph Morales, the National Puerto Rican Day Parade chairperson, said that overall Sunday’s event was a huge success. “It was a wonderful event with more participants than in the past. It moved a lot quicker thanks to the cooperation of the agencies that participated,” said Morales, who estimated that up to 100,000 people marched in the parade while 1.6 to 2 million spectators celebrated in the crowd.—Christina Sergi