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Fantasia Caribeña

A look behind the “seams” at the troupe that travels to NYC each year to represent Vieques.  And the woman who gets them there in style.

Marisa Santiago stands at a concrete table on her front porch as island breezes move around her. She is hunched over a 3’ wire frame – a soon-to-be butterfly wing – with a hot glue gun in one hand and gold piping in the other. It is 1pm, and I know she will probably be in that position until 1am. During that time the task at hand will trade places in her tireless mind with dance steps and a pressing deadline. Forty two costumes need to be completed by May 16th then shipped by container to Pennsylvania.  The final destination? The New York City Puerto Rican Day Parade on June 12th, an event seen by over 2 million people and covered by all the major networks.

The porch is piled high with boxes of ribbons, bolts of fabric, silk flowers and leaves, rhinestones, foam filler, metal headdress frames and Puerto Rican flags.  And enough feathers to carpet the Plaza in Isabel II.  Marisa stops what she is doing to greet me with a warm smile and hug, then picks up the glue gun again.

Her troupe, Fantasia Caribeña, will wear the costumes, all custom designed for each member. This year’s theme, Flora and Fauna of Vieques, is Marisa’s concept, a vision she has shared with welder José Rios who has fabricated the metal frames; turtle, bumblebee, butterfly, parrot, iguana, and Ceiba tree, hibiscis flower and palm tree. José also welds other costume pieces and the elaborate headdress frames. But there is more to it than that. Many of the costumes are like personal floats as they are rolled down the street by the wearer. Each design has to be carefully thought out and constructed to fit inside the Crowley container and be easily disassembled and reassembled at the parade.

Marisa tells me to peek around the corner of her porch where all of the metal skeleton frames are stacked, waiting their turn to be covered in fabric and embellishments that will bring her vision to life.  She grew up in St. Croix where carnival is celebrated by all. Her interest in the costumes and visualizing designs came easy to her, an interest that led her to found Fantasia Caribeña. The group was started when Marisa’s niece asked if she would create costumes for her and her friends, just days before Vieques’ 2008 Fiestas del Pueblo parade. Marisa quickly put together twelve costumes and a dance routine for the neighborhood girls, and Fantasia Caribeña was born. The organization has since grown from twelve members in 2008 to sixty members today, and is now a registered non-profit corporation. With its youngest member just 3 years old and its eldest over 70 this is a true community group, all working together and proud to keep the tradition alive.

The NYC Puerto Rican Day Parade has grown to become the largest demonstration of ethnic pride in the nation and honors the inhabitants of Puerto Rico as well as the nearly 4 million Puerto Ricans residing in the States.  I asked Marisa what she is most proud of in the process and why she does what she does. “Each year we dedicate our performance to a higher purpose. We try to send a message. This year it is for the renal patients. We represent our island with pride. We try to put Vieques on the top of the mountain. Our presentation is serious.”

Serious, but with a lot of smiles, laughter and fun. Almost every night of the week the group practices the choreography of the walking dance they will perform in June at Fifth Avenue and 44th Street in NYC, and then again for the Fiestas del Pueblo parade on Vieques in July. Marisa tells me they aren’t sure if the Vieques Fiestas del Pueblo will be held this year due to budget cuts.  “But we will do something,” she says, “even if we have to have our own parade.”

As with most people’s passions, there is never enough time or money.  Marisa Santiago’s to-do list is staggering; fund raising to support the trip to New York and pay for costume materials, dance practice every night, and the design and manufacture of all of the costumes.  But Marissa is undaunted because it is her passion.  Chinita, one of her dancers, joins us on the porch and gets to work on the butterfly wing.  “You know,” she tells me, “Marisa threatens every year to not do this the following year.”  Marisa responds without taking her eyes from the work in front of her.  “Yes,

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