I was sitting with Jonathan at an outdoor café, the dog’s leash tied to the leg of our wooden folding table, the dog lapping water out of a clear plastic salad container that the waitress had brought for her. The café is in a well maintained old building—a restored antique—and everything is covered in a coat of white paint. There are enormous windows and a pink and brown awning and outside, piped in quietly through the speakers, is the sound of Louis Armstrong. Everyone at the surrounding tables is in his or her late 20’s or 30’s and appears artsy but well off financially—they work in marketing or advertising, maybe. Or maybe the men are in IT and the women are assistant editors at some company in Manhattan. Anyone with a baby has the baby in a conspicuously expensive stroller or else the child is sitting on its father’s shoulders, its legs covering the G-Star logo of his distressed T-shirt. Mainly it is just couples—the girls all wearing large, fashionable sunglasses and the boys wearing aviators. I sit, drinking tea out of an enormous mug, looking at Jonathan.
And that is when someone starts blowing a whistle.
And it isn’t an accusatory, “No running by the pool!” whistle or a “Somebody stop that man!” whistle—it’s a series of staccato beats and it is followed by the sound of horns blowing, and after that, of reed flutes. And everyone at the café turns, slowly, as if we are all extras in a mid-90’s Meg Ryan movie and something funny is happening. And suddenly we notice that policemen are clearing away the cars and blocking off the street and Jon whispers “It’s the Bolivian Parade. It’s always in early August.” And we get up to look and a block away there is a department of Public Works vehicle that is pulling a flatbed trailer with a woman in a sequined dress whose sash says, “Miss Bolivia USA,” and she is surrounded by other people in good dress clothes who are waving and smiling. The trailer looks like something you would rent from Home Depot to lug materials to a building site, but today Miss Bolivia USA is on it, waving, and I feel a little bad that she is so dressed up in her crown and blue sequins and she is standing on something that looks like it is on loan from a farming community.
Louis Armstrong is at this point completely drowned out and so Jon and I pay the check and decide we will quickly cross the road to watch a little of the parade. A group of children, mostly girls, in traditional Bolivian dress march down Grove street, led by a small boy with a crewcut whose traditional outfit is accented by mirrored Oakley sunglasses. The outfits are black and heavy and have elaborately puffed sleeves with red and gold and green decorations and sequins dripping from the fabric. The children are smiling and clearly ecstatic to be part of the parade, and I feel bad that there are so few people watching. Most people of Bolivian heritage are participating in the parade, it seems, which means that the audience is composed of older Bolivian relatives holding Bolivian infants, people from other South American countries who are enjoying the music, and “people who happened to be walking down the street and are trying to figure out what the hell’s going on.”
Another enthusiastic group follows the Oakley-clad eight year old and this group is older, consisting mainly of men. Each group is led by a truck filled with enough speakers to fill a studio apartment, blaring traditional music that seems to consist mainly of horns, drums, and occasionally reed-type flutes. The outfits are similarly eccentric—dark purple puffed sleeves and bright metallic buttons. Jackets with broad shoulders and sequined pants and tall boots that are covered in thick rows of golf ball-sized jingle bells. And the men do an elaborate dance that involves inordinate amounts of kicking, rattling the enormous bells that cover their boots like loud, festive boils. There is one man with gel in his short, curly hair who is incredibly confident—he is grinning, showing off his bright white television announcer teeth, and throwing his head back dramatically, cocking one eyebrow and making love to the audience as he dances and jumps and makes his boots rattle. And beside him is a boy of about seventeen who is almost six feet tall but looks as though he has not yet adjusted to his size—he has braces and a round, babyish head and continually looks at his feet and the feet of the man next to him, trying to make sure they are in sync. He is trying desperately to remember the steps, his legs stomping the ground a half second after the others, his arms awkwardly trying to remember the movements while he sweats—everyone is sweating because the costumes are heavy and it is close to 100 degrees outside. And I am clapping and feeling bad that they have gone through the trouble of putting on these elaborate costumes and memorizing these elaborate dances and that there are so few people watching.
Next a group of unlabeled Bolivian men in suits walks by, smiling and waving at the crowd and it is during this lull in excitement that a woman pushing a baby stroller covered in Bolivian flags quickly crosses the road and two vendors selling Dora the Explorer and Spongebob Squarepants balloons make their way toward the bandstand at the end of the parade route. A woman in shorts and sunglasses casually walks out into the parade the way you would step out into a river, letting the water divert its flow around your ankles. She takes a picture and leaves.
I clap loudly and cheer and notice that the crowd of spectators is growing. As groups complete the parade they join those on the sidelines. The children from the first group are standing alongside the road now, drinking orange sodas from cans, still wearing their sunglasses, and the dancers with the bells are cheering and the men in suits are standing on the sidelines smiling. Miss Bolivia USA is standing atop the bandstand, clapping as a new group makes its way down the parade route—women with long, brown braids and short, fluffy, tu-tu-type skirts which they shake back and forth followed by men wearing masks with bald heads followed by costumes that are round and tiered and make their inhabitants look like neurotic wedding cakes. A man walks by, hands thrown in the air, in a large fluffy costume whose animal head makes him look like the squirrel-rat creature from the Ice Age movies, but who, upon further reflection, is probably a sloth. Walking devotedly alongside him is a much smaller sloth of about five years of age who has taken off his sloth mask because he is hot and sweaty and who carries it in his left hand while looking up with admiration at the larger sloth, who he obviously idolizes. The big sloth looks down lovingly at the little sloth and grabs his free hand, smiling and shouting and dancing in a circle until the little sloth begins smiling and dancing as well. The sloths are followed by women in woolen shawls and tiny South American bowler hats that appear to be pinned to their heads, who are in turn followed by more elaborately dressed men who ooze enthusiasm—each man holding a helmet-type hat in his right hand that vaguely resembles a giant hazelnut and jumping ridiculously high into the air, hitting the helmets against the ground with a synchronized “clunk,” before leaping back into the ether. They are energetic and infectious and suddenly one of the older men in the khaki suits runs back into the parade and positions himself at the head of the hazelnut helmet troupe, dancing along with them. He is throwing himself up as his arms go up and down as his legs stomp their energy into Grove street, his Khaki suit pants growing dark from sweat. And then suddenly, for no reason, I am crying. Tears are flowing from my eyes and I don’t look at Jon, because I don’t want him to see that I’m crying during the Parade. I am self-conscious that I will look like an idiot, and I am dismayed because at first I cannot figure out WHY I am crying. When I was very young I cried when I hurt myself or when I thought about my parents dying or once, when I watched “The Fox and the Hound,” when the hound takes a stand, placing himself between the Fox and the hunter’s gun. And then I got older and hormones kicked in and I cried constantly—I cried at the scene in Free Willy where the whale jumps over a rock wall to escape back out to sea and I thought, “Ok, this is pretty pathetic,” which it was, but here I was twenty years later, crying at the East Coast Bolivian Heritage Parade and not even knowing why.
And I tell Jon, “Ok, we’ve stayed long enough. Let’s take the dog to the dog park before it starts to rain,” and he says, “Sure,” and I feel mildly guilty that we are leaving, since I want people to be there to watch the parade since everyone has clearly worked so so hard and they are dancing and sweating and smiling as if the whole thing is being filmed for NBC, which of course it is not. There will maybe be a small article about the parade in the Jersey Journal, which I only ever read when I am using the bag it comes in to pick up my dog’s feces.
And I walk away and suddenly see a giant hurricane of rainbow confetti fill the street and it suddenly hits me that the well-choreographed Bolivians of the east coast aren’t upset with anyone for leaving or for not coming in the first place and they don’t need anyone to be there but themselves—that this was less of a poorly attended play and more of a flamboyant family reunion. And I couldn’t pinpoint the exact thing that made me realize it but it was something about those sequined men with the hazelnut helmets leaping and crashing enthusiastically into the macadam-- rocketing into the air, joyously oblivious to anything. And the man in the Khaki suit jumping down off the bandstand and joining in, and they were clearly having so much fun and were so happy and whatever stupid part of me cried when Free Willy jumped over the wall to Freedom began crying at the Bolivian parade as I realized how happy they were. And so I went to walk the dog, which is a small, muted sort of happiness, and I held Jonathan’s hand, which is a happiness of the same sort—my happiness tends to be quaint and quiet, involving cafes and Louis Armstrong and reading a book.
And as we walked away we listened to the clamor of horns and drums and flutes. Behind us the confetti swirled through the street and the participants of the parade marched forward proudly and various children waved Bolivian Flags (which, for the record, are red yellow and green with a small crest in the center) desperately hoping that in an upcoming year they would be participating—dancing and sweating with their families— rather than sitting on the sidelines.