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Puerto Rican Day Parade Sees Big Crowds Despite Controversy

Donning the Puerto Rico flag on their backs, and waving their flags in the air, thousands of people showed up for the 60th Annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City, despite the weeks of controversy that surrounded the event.

"I'm fully Puerto Rican and I'm here with my family...We're showing people who we are and what we do," 15-year-old Natasha Perez told NBC News. "Que viva Puerto Rico," she said.

A group of spectators line the streets during the 60th Puerto Rican Day Parade. Marissa Armas, NBC News

Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera, who was at the center of the controversy leading up to the parade, led one of the first floats of the parade down Fifth Avenue as crowds cheered and/or stayed silent as he passed by. Several community advocacy groups marched behind him carrying signs and banners with his face on them, chanting "Puerto Rico se defiende" (Puerto Rico defends itself" and "Que viva Puerto Rico" (long live Puerto Rico). Several people both in the crowd and in the parade were there in support of him.

"They accused him of committing terrorism, but they were never able to charge him with anything... it was simply a conspiracy. He was in prison for 35 years, let him live in peace," Felix Arroyo told NBC News.

Dean Huertas said it showed "great pride and courage" that López Rivera still showed up to show support for the Puerto Rican community.

Scenes from the 60th Puerto Rican Day Parade. A group from the town of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico march past the crowds. Marissa Armas

For Luis Classen it was quite the opposite. "I don't think he was the right person to be representing us. In Puerto Rico we wanted him to be free, but we didn't approve of him being the person representing the people over here...there were other people," Classen said.

Rogelio Sales said that the crowd size was down this year compared to the 2016 event, and went on to call López Rivera a "terrorist." "That guy Oscar shouldn't have even been here to begin with."

On June 2nd, López Rivera announced that he would step down as the parade honoree and said he would participate in the event as a "humble Puerto Rican." Organizers initially said they wanted to honor him as the parade's first-ever "National Freedom Hero," which prompted several big event sponsors to pull out of the event, including Goya Foods, Jet Blue, AT&T, Coca Cola and more.

López Rivera was imprisoned for his involvement in the nationalist group FALN. In the 1970s and 1980s FALN claimed responsibility for a campaign of bombings in New York City, Chicago, and other cities. In New York City, FALN was linked to the 1975 blast at Fraunces Tavern, which killed four people and wounded many others.

López Rivera was not charged with carrying out any bombings or acts of violence but served 35 years in prison for sedition and other charges. His sentence was commuted by President Obama in January.

Despite the controversy, many Puerto Ricans said they were very proud to be at the historic parade to show their pride and support for the Puerto Rican community. Among the honorees and participants were salsa star Gilberto Santa Rosa as Grand Marshall, Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernández, Yandel of the group Wisin y Yandel, and the iconic Iris Chacón as the "Madrina."

Carmen Melendez said that she didn't agree that some people were bashing the parade and said it was still very important for her to show support. "We still need to show our pride," she said.

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