Puerto Rican culture is front and center at Melrose ‘parranda’

Musicians sing and play the panderettas during the 4th Annual Melrose Holiday Parranda. By Jaya Sundaresh

The drummers adjust the tightness of their panderetas, or drums, ratcheting the skins tight. They talk excitedly amongst each other, alternating between Spanish and English. It isn’t raining, the way it threatened to earlier; the parranda (which is the Puerto Rican tradition of Christmas caroling) can go forward as planned. 

“It’s balmy compared to previous years,” says Elena Martinez, co-artistic director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center, and an organizer of this year’s event. “When it gets very cold, we can’t use the drums. The skin will break.” 

Preparing for bad weather is just one of the many logistical considerations that goes into planning the Melrose Holiday Parranda, a collaboration between five local organizations. As in previous years, the Heritage Center worked together with the Melrose-based community develooment group Nos Quedamos, which participated in the event for the third consecutive year. 

Over the course of the evening, a loud procession of singers, horn players, drummers, and cheerful community members paraded through the streets of Melrose. Mostly they remained on the sidewalks, occasionally spilling out into the street, in an exuberant celebration of Puerto Rican heritage and of the holiday season. The procession stopped at various casitas, or garden houses, located in public parks and lots around the neighborhood. Melrose has the highest concentration of casitas in the city.

This year’s parranda had special meaning, however. The organizers sought to draw attention to the continued humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of last year’s Hurricane Maria. Even so, an underlying message of community, togetherness, and holiday spirit remained. “This unifies the community,” says Enoel Santiago, who took part in the festivities. “It brings people a sense of pride and a sense of nostalgia at the same time. If we can provide just a small glimpse of what home feels like or used to feel like, it’s a blessing.”

What does it take to put on this kind of production? Money, for one. The organizers have to pay the musicians; have to pay for the food and refreshments provided at each casita; for extended staff hours and promotional costs. (BMHC paid for most of the event’s expenses with grant money.) But as Edwin Pagan of Nos Quedamos puts it, “the main resource” needed to put an event like this on is “the energy of the people.” 

About halfway through the procession, Community Affaris Officer Hector Espada at the 40th precinct joined the parranda, in his own way. At busy intersections, he remained in his car to flash his lights to let the revelers pass safely. He could be seen banging on his steering wheel in time to the beat as the musicians passed, and later told the Mott Haven Herald that the parranda was “beautiful for the community”.

Petr Stand, an urban planner on the board of Nos Quedamos, noted that Melrose was commonly thought of as one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods of the city, a designation that is beginning to change as the South Bronx becomes more economically viable. “The sound of the parranda is the sound of life returning to this neighborhood,” said Stand, who expressed hope that this could become an enduring tradition.