Oscar Lopez Rivera may not have officially been honored as a National Freedom Hero in the city's Puerto Rican Day Parade, but the fervent nationalist who spent decades in prison for his involvement with a group responsible for bombings in the 1970s and '80s still got to ride on a float.
Lopez Rivera was cheered and booed as he stood proudly clutching a Puerto Rican flag when the parade stepped off in Manhattan on Sunday, the day the U.S. territory voted overwhelmingly to choose statehood in a non-binding referendum.
His supporters followed, carrying signs that read, "Oscar Lopez Rivera is our Mandela." Nanchelle Rivera, who's no relation, was not among them.
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From the sidelines, Rivera said she refuses to back the man who served 35 years in prison for his involvement with a group responsible for bombings that killed and maimed dozens of people.
"He did not represent me," said Rivera, visiting from Orlando, Florida.
A supporter in the parade heard her booing and shouted back, "This is your history!"
Weeks of controversy preceded the activist's planned appearance. People and corporations withdrew from the parade to protest the decision to honor the 74-year-old former member of the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, and several police and fire department groups said they wouldn't attend.
Lopez Rivera said last week he wouldn't accept the National Freedom Hero title, which organizers at first granted him, but would join the parade as a regular citizen, partly because the focus was too much on him and not enough on Puerto Rico's plight. The parade's board of directors said Lopez Rivera would join the parade "not as an honoree but as a humble Puerto Rican and grandfather."
Parade board vice chair Ululy Martinez said Lopez Rivera was placed on a float because of his age and the 92-degree heat.
Lopez Rivera stood atop one of the first floats in the parade, waving to the crowd and pounding his chest.
"This is for the Puerto Rican people!" he shouted.
City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Democrat, walked with the lead group in the parade, then climbed up on the float to join Lopez Rivera.
"This is a day of unity and celebration," she said.
Most of the tens of thousands of revelers turned out simply to celebrate Puerto Rico, happily salsa-dancing and waving Puerto Rican flags. Some wrapped their bodies in the flag, others adorned their heads with the red, white and blue colors.
Old friends Sandy Santiago-Ramos and Gloria Pagan have been attending the parade from the Bronx since they were kids.
"I hope the politics surrounding it doesn't dampen the parade and the spirit of the parade," Santiago-Ramos said.
The parade often has been a venue to showcase the complicated history of the U.S. territory, now mired in a recession. This year, it came on the day Puerto Ricans were voting in the referendum among three choices: independence, statehood or their current territorial status. Nearly half a million votes were cast for statehood, about 7,600 for free association/independence and nearly 6,700 for independence. Congress has final say on any changes to the territory's political status.
Sheila Cunningham, the daughter of a Puerto Rican immigrant, said she loves Lopez Rivera.
"He has the right to believe in what he believes in," she said. "This is the land of the free."
Decades ago, FALN claimed responsibility for more than 100 bombings in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, including a 1975 blast that killed four people at New York's historic Fraunces Tavern.
Lopez Rivera was convicted of seditious conspiracy. He has denied participating in attacks that injured anyone. He was released last month following the commutation of his sentence by then-President Barack Obama, a Democrat.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who for weeks defended his own decision to march, said last week that he was uncomfortable with the idea of honoring Lopez Rivera all along. He showed up for the march, making no comments but shaking hands with people across police barricades.
(Disclosure: NBC 4 New York and Telemundo 47 have been sponsors of the Puerto Rican Day parade.)
This story has been corrected to show the National Freedom Hero title was dropped before the parade and wasn't used at the parade.