Puerto Rican fest set to ride again

Under new leadership, Boston's Puerto Rican festival has apparently shaken off the financial troubles that caused its cancellation in 2007, and will once again roll to the Salsa beat this weekend in Franklin Park.

The turn-around began even before the July fest was cancelled in June of 2007, when the old leadership of the festival stepped down and Reyito Santiago, now president of the board, and a number of other sponsors and volunteers agreed to engineer a comeback.

At that time, nearly a decade of financial mismanagement had left the festival heavily indebted and without a 501c3 designation. Santiago and others were able to get it reinstated by May of that year, but that left little time to raise funds for the celebration. They made the tough decision to cancel the festival for the first time since the late 1960s when it began.

"A lot of people criticized them for doing that," said Oiste! director Giovanna Negretti. "It wasn't easy, but I think it was the most honest and responsible decision that has ever been made in the history of the festival."

"They left the Puerto Rican festival in ruins, it was in very bad shape," said Santiago. "Nobody can fix the past, but we can fix the future. That is my goal."

Over the last year the festival leadership - with new people elected to over 80 percent of the board's seats, according to Santiago - has hired an accountant, begun to pay down debts, and managed to have one of its largest debts, to the Boston Police Department, forgiven.

Councillor Chuck Turner played an important role in that debt cancellation, bringing the appropriate city agencies to the table to negotiate with the new festival organizers, setting the wheels in motion for the city's goodwill gesture.

"The group that was in charge in the past, they put very little money to the city, a down payment," said Santiago. "We decided we don't work that way, we take care of the city. Every festival has to be responsible to the city."

Santiago also had support from several Puerto Rican and Latino organizations from around the city, traditional supporters of the festival.

"I'm just so glad they're back," said Jenny Cintron, director of ABCD's Citywide Hispanic Center. "If I can put a little bit of effort to help I'm going to do it, not just as a part of ABCD but as a person and a Puerto Rican."

This year the festival is bringing up Zon del Barrio, an Afro-Boricua style band from New York, rather than fly up an act from Puerto Rico, which might have incurred a high cost. Sammy Ayala and Yomo Toro will also appear on the main stage Sunday. Dozens of other acts will play the festival, even opening the door to modern reggaeton to go along with the more traditional salsa and merengue.

"I'm really proud of them," said Negretti. "This should be seen as a success story… a rebirth of a festival that has been here for many years."