On its 25th anniversary, parade honors neighborhood ‘heroes’
Sister Thomas was standing on a bandstand on Southern Boulevard when her “bobble-head” likeness passed by. Children from a SEBCO afterschool program fashioned the figurine of the well-known community leader from a papier-mâché orb, a pink cardigan and a photograph as part of their entry for this year’s New South Bronx Parade.
The parade marked its 25th anniversary on Oct. 22, by adopting the theme “Honoring the Heroes of Hunts Point,” and Sister Thomas was among the 13 individuals and 12 organizations celebrated for their unwavering dedication to the neighborhood.
From the grandstand, Sister Thomas, who first came to Hunts Point as a teacher at St. Athanasius School in 1962, watched zombies, cheerleaders, witches, princesses, floats and banners go by, in a social event that has come to represent the vigor of revitalized community.
In 1985, with the help of Father Louis Gigante of SEBCO and Peter Cantillo, then district manager of Community Board 2, Sister Thomas launched the Halloween Parade as a way to “celebrate the good part of life.”
“You forget all the bad, when you’re a child again,” said Sister Thomas, with a mile-wide smile, framed by her black bob wig and Mardi Gras mask studded with sequins.
For many, the parade also symbolized a “take back our streets” tradition on a night when mischief and crime had kept families in a neglected neighborhood indoors.
“This spot right here you couldn’t walk down,” said Anita Antonetty, a job skills advocate at Rocking the Boat and member of the community board, as she stood at the parade’s starting point on Simpson Street near Westchester Avenue.
“There would be rats and rubble,” said Antonetty, who first walked in the parade 20 years ago with her two year old son.
Lytza Colon, another honoree, remembers having to move out of her apartment in 1972, because her building was “the only one left on the block.” Later, she moved into the first SEBCO housing on Southern Boulevard.
In 1990, John Calderone, who still serves as parade coordinator, asked Colon, as a tenant leader involved with an afterschool program, for help in expanding the parade. Over the years, she spearheaded the parades’ themes, costume contests and poster designs.
“It went from a kind of anti-street violence campaign to promoting social themes,” said Calderone, as he stapled posters around Gigante Plaza four days before the event.
Recent themes have ranged from environmental causes and healthy eating to campaigns to get out the vote and raise awareness of the census. Judges award prizes for the floats, banners, costumes and groups that exemplify the theme of the year.
“And it can be competitive,” says Colon, who helped SEBCO youngsters with their bobble head figurines.
Marta Rivera says that all the work and progress has brought her joy. Another ‘Hunts Point Hero,” Rivera, the director of programs at Casita Maria, enthusiastically proclaimed the winners of the costume contest from the bandstand.
She sees the annual parade expanding further. “I want it to be bigger than Manhattan’s!” Rivera said.
The comparison is common. Many insist that the Hunts Point Halloween Parade is a close second in size Manhattan’s Greenwich Village Parade.
“This one’s a little more family-oriented,” said Joseph Mbo, representing United Bronx Parents, pointing to the brigade of strollers marching with his group.
For Altagracia Cruz, another “hero,” this year’s 25th anniversary celebrates family. She beamed as she talked about the community’s progress and pointed to her three grandchildren walking in front of her with a Banana Kelly banner, a banner, she said, that “their parents made 23 years ago!”
Nancy Soto, who has lived in the area for her whole life, agrees the parade is about family and seeing more kids each year makes her proud.
“It’s about getting together!” interrupted her daughter Angelique, dressed as Cinderella.
Angelique and hundreds of kids look forward to the parade every year, according to Shonda Walbrook, who works at the New South Bronx Center. For her, this year’s theme brought new awareness.
“They’re acknowledging other people as well,” she said, considering the list of honorees. “It’s not just SEBCO. It’s everybody.”
The task of organizing the paraded is a group effort, as well. With Community Board 2’s Youth Services Planning Committee at the helm, dozens volunteered time and services. Chaperones from the Bronx chapter of City Year, a national program that brings volunteers to schools, brought orange and black balloons. Sister Thomas donated board games for prizes for the toddler costume contest. SOBBID, the Southern Boulevard Business Improvement District, provided the stage, sound system and DJ.
As Lytza Colon sums it up, “One day a year, the community works in a united way.”
By 8:30 p.m., the crowd had vacated Father Gigante Plaza. The zombies and witches had marched 12 blocks, but the community had come much further, on a long road to revival.