Phagwah on parade

By Sarina Trangle

Revelers from Canada to California flocked to Richmond Hill Sunday to usher in spring with a parade dominated by DJs, drum ensembles, colorful powders and dancing in the streets.

Though many among the thousands lining Liberty Avenue hailed from the Guyanese enclave of Richmond Hill, others traveled hours to mark the Phagwah Festival among fellow Indo-Caribbeans.

Tara Tirbeni, who flew in from Canada, said she enjoyed marking the Hindu celebration of the triumph of good over evil and the beginning of spring in Queens.

“There’s nothing like this in Canada,” Tirbeni said, while twirling her hands in the air to the rhythm of a passing float.

For 26 years, Richmond Hill has marked Phagwah with a parade and informal color war, where passers-by fling bright powders and occasionally use water guns full of dyed liquids to paint one another.

The tradition dates back to India, where Hindus mark the holiday known as Holi by wearing all white and throwing a liquid red dye called abeer on each other. Indians brought the tradition with them when they migrated to the Caribbean.

It has since traveled with Indo-Caribbeans to Queens, where Phagwah Festival has grown to attract revelers of many backgrounds and became a showcase of Southeast Asian and Caribbean cultures.

Leila Zayas, a Long Island resident, and her relatives toasted spring with small cups of beer. She marveled at the parade marching by, saying that on the island there are no floats.

“It’s bigger here than in Guyana,” Zayas said.

Tanesha Sookram, 22, and her family traveled more than three hours from New Jersey. She said she still remembered the last time they came to Richmond Hill for the occasion a decade ago and she was covered in powder in Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto Park.

“I’ve been looking forward to this since I was 12,” she said.

As the parade proceeded from Liberty Avenue near 133rd Street toward 125th Street and then north to the park, many spectators joined the march, belting out lyrics from Hindu and American songs and waving flags from Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Suriname and Jamaica.

Once in the park, crowds gathered to watch dancers perform on stage and hear from officials hailing from Guyana to the upstate city of Schenectady.

Borough President Melinda Katz and City Councilmen Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica) and Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) wished attendees a happy spring and praised the traditions immigrants have brought to the borough.

“We are a better city because of you,” Ulrich said.

John Mootooveren, the first Guyanese-American elected to the Schenectady City Council, was greeted with applause when he described himself as “a proud Hindu.”

Richmond Hill leaders have spent years encouraging the Indo-Caribbean community to participate in the census, with the hopes that more accurate demographic statistics would help them amend city and state political districts and field Guyanese candidates.

To date, Richmond Hill is split between four Council and six state Assembly districts, according to Vishnu Mahadeo, founder of the neighborhood’s Economic Development Council.

Despite grandstanding from politicians and candidates, including Grant Lally, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Melville), many in the park preferred to party.

Latchmin Sultan threw powder into the air, dancing as it rained down on her and her friends.

The Richmond Hill resident said she could not get off from work early enough to watch the parade, but took off in time to watch the performances in the park.

“Today is really exciting, just so many people, everyone’s so happy,” she said.

Reach reporter Sarina Trangle at 718-260-4546 or by e-mail at strangle@cnglocal.com.