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Hartford History Center Exhibits: Puerto Ricans Making Hartford Home

Online exhibits on Hartford history curated by the Hartford History Center team

Introduction

Puerto Ricans Making Hartford Home
An exhibit by the Hartford History Center at Hartford Public Library
Originally displayed at the Hartford Stage during their production of Pike Street by Nilaja Sun (January 9 - February 2, 2020)

Although the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico was officially established in 1898, with the U.S. acquiring the island as its territory for military and economic purposes, Puerto Ricans were only trickling into U.S. cities like New York and Hartford in the early 20th century. In the 1940s, Puerto Ricans came to U.S. cities in larger waves for war-related, agricultural and manufacturing efforts. By the mid-1950s, an estimated 3,000 Puerto Ricans were beginning to settle in Hartford, with a concentration of the community in the Clay Hill neighborhood of Hartford, nestled in the fork between Albany Avenue and Main Street. Many had been heavily recruited into the shade tobacco industry and made choices to stay beyond seasonal work.

This early group of Puerto Rican settlers made enough of an impact to push for the first Spanish-speaking priest at Sacred Heart Church and began to establish small businesses in the neighborhood. It is estimated that Hartford’s Puerto Rican resident population jumped from 9,000 in 1965 to more than 30,000 by the end of the 1970s. Puerto Ricans on the island followed their relatives to live in Hartford’s Clay Hill and later South Green and Park Street/Frog Hollow neighborhoods. With strong leaders, communities took on discrimination and challenges around housing, education, employment and political power, finding ways to make significant cultural and social impacts in the city so that they could create the support they needed to survive and make Hartford home. Today, Hartford has a diverse and growing Latinx community, which represents more than 45% of the city’s population.  

The following photographs are a selection from the Hartford Times photograph collection at the Hartford History Center at Hartford Public Library. In addition to the following images, please view footage from the Hartford History Center’s Butch Lewis 1969 Video Collection. More information on the links.

Photo Gallery

Hartford Times photo by Daniel Gottlieb
July 20, 1959
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Hartford Times created a special series in 1959 on the socio-economic conditions in Puerto Rico, starting with this image of what Gottlieb calls a “muddy hillside road in Puerto Rico,” not far from San Juan. It appears he wanted to show an example of the neighborhood conditions that many Hartford Puerto Ricans were coming from and also to discuss a new housing effort by the Puerto Rican government for stronger, hurricane-withstanding structures.

Hartford Times photo, photographer unknown
August 1971
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Street scene from Kennedy Street at Main Street in Hartford’s Clay Hill neighborhood, where many Puerto Ricans first settled.

Hartford Times photo by S. Robert Pugliese
August 31, 1969
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

In several articles and accounts, it was reported that many Puerto Ricans had an adverse relationship with police officers because they congregated on stoops outside and were considered loud and loitering. This photograph’s caption reads “…social life centers on the streets and what is loitering anyway?”

Hartford Times photo, photographer unknown
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Meat processing was a common manufacturing job for Puerto Ricans in Hartford, which was a higher paying and more stable position than the shade tobacco industry.

Hartford Times photo by Charles J. Vendetti
May 7, 1957
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

“MAKING NEW LIFE in Hartford, Vernan Rodriguez, his wife and children have four-room apartment for which they pay $34 weekly rent. Typical of the Puerto Rican newcomers to city, they include, from left, Inosencia, Wilfredo, Mr. Rodriguez, Mrs. Rodriguez holding Jose Manuel, Olga, Iris and Mary Lou.” Hartford Times caption.

Hartford Times photo by Daniel Gottlieb
May 3, 1957
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

“BUENAS TARDES! This is Pedro…he says ‘Good Afternoon’ in Spanish. He is a newcomer to the city. There are 3,000 like him who are isolated from the rest of the community by language, strange ways and poverty. Their story will be told starting in Saturday’s Times by Daniel Gottlieb.” Hartford Times caption.

Hartford Times photo by Charles J. Vendetti
May 15, 1957
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Early on, there were not many educational resources for Puerto Rican students learning English. Hartford would become the center of political advocacy for bilingual and bicultural education by organizers such as Esther Jimenez, Maria Sanchez, Tony Soto, and Edna Negron, who submitted a bilingual proposal to the federal government in 1971. The result was the establishment of the Ann Street Bilingual School in 1972, nicknamed “La Esquelita.” After Ramos v. Gaines class action suit in 1976 against the Hartford Board of Education, a 1978 consent decree was established, mandating bilingual, bicultural education in the Hartford Public School system. In 1979, Hartford’s first Puerto Rican superintendent, Hernan LaFontaine, was hired.

Hartford Times photo by Juan Fuentes
September 24, 1972

Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Angelica Velazquez, the Grand Marshall of Hartford’s Puerto Rican Parade, marches in front of Hartford Public High School’s Proyecto MAS group. Velazquez was the owner of La Casa Latina, a small bridal shop at 1688 Main Street, Hartford. MAS ran an alternative education program for potential dropouts in the city. The first Hartford Puerto Rican parade took place in 1964.

Hartford Times photo by Charles J. Vendetti
May 7, 1957
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Hartford Times photo by Juan Fuentes
August 15, 1969
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

“Puerto Rican viewpoint is expressed by Peter Castillo at meeting with city officials. Others are Councilman Nicholas Carbone, right, City Manager Elisha C. Freedman and Mrs. Maria Sanchez.” Hartford Times caption.

Hartford Times photo by Ed Lescoe
November 21, 1970
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

The People’s Liberation Party was one of the activist groups led by Puerto Ricans in Hartford in the 1970s, similar to the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, and the Black Panther Party. Here they can been seen rallying at Hartford’s City Hall to call for Puerto Rico’s independence and call out against Hartford-based police brutality. 

Clippings from vertical files and select reports
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

With many social agencies unable to fully understand and respond to the needs of Hartford’s Puerto Rican communities, Puerto Rican leaders began to establish their own social agencies, cultural organizations, and political advocacy groups in order to meet their own needs. Here is a visual representation of some of those groups and materials they produced between the 1960s and 1980s.

Hartford Times photo by Ed Lescoe
October 3, 1971
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

“Hartford Fiesta – A vacant lot at Goodwin and Main Streets became the site of a ‘typical Puerto Rican Fiesta’ yesterday as hundreds turned out for their music, food and sports of Puerto Rico. The fiesta was organized by Hijos de Borinquen, Inc., to revive traditions and customs that are in danger of becoming forgotten, a spokesman said.” Hartford Times caption.

Hartford Times photo, photographer unknown
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

New Britain-based Puerto Rican Vietnam veterans show pride in their ride during a Puerto Rican Day Parade, down Capitol Avenue in Hartford.

Hartford Times photo, photographer unknown
December 21, 1969
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

“Baile Tipico Puertorriqueno – Los niñitos Olga Luz Rivera, Carlos Juan Torres, Nereida Torres y Warnell Dailey interpretan baile tipico Puertorriqueno en fiesta de navidad celebrado por los niños, padres y maestros de ‘Playtime for Tots.’” Hartford Times caption.

Translation: “Traditional Puerto Rican dance – Children Olga Luz Rivera, Carlos Juan Torres, Nereida Torres and Warnell Dailey interpret traditional Puerto Rican dance at a Christmas party for children, parents, and teachers of ‘Playtime for Tots.’”

Hartford Times photo by S. Robert Pugliese
Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

Hartford Times photo, photographer unknown
July 12, 1965
Courtesy of Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library

“HARVEST TIME – Good growing weather marked by plenty of sunshine and warm nights is speeding annual shade grown tobacco harvest in Connecticut Valley. First picking of cigar wrapper leaves started today on Otee Plantation in Windsor. Viewing from left: Roberto Ortiz slides between rows in tented field to pick bottom leaves.” Hartford Times caption.


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