Welcome to the Puerto Rican Heritage Trail of Hartford, Connecticut
The Hartford Puerto Rican Heritage Trail project highlights Puerto Rican contributions to the city of Hartford and documents the rich history of Puerto Ricans in Hartford, Connecticut. Co-sponsored by Trinity College and Connecticut’s State Historic Preservation Office, the trail project allows its visitors to physically and virtually trace the footsteps of those that first came from the island to work in Hartford County’s fields and factories. Visitors can begin a physical walk of the Frog Hollow section by picking up the trail at the intersections of Zion and Park Streets to the East, or Main and Park Streets to the West. You are at the beginning of the online trail.
A Heritage Trail of Puerto Ricans in Hartford
Historical records tell us that Puerto Ricans first arrived in Connecticut in the 1840’s, but they did not migrate in large numbers until after WWII. The second half of the twentieth century brought waves of islanders who built visible and viable communities within our state. Like most migrants and immigrants, upon arrival, while they learned a new language, they took jobs that no one else wanted, the lowest paid and least skilled positions. This first generation lived productive, socially conscious lives by establishing their own community institutions, stores, clubs, churches and social agencies. Subsequent generations built upon those institutions and have become community and political leaders. Puerto Ricans have worked hard to raise their families and maintain cultural values, and have made significant economical and cultural contributions to the state’s well being.
The Puerto Rican community in Hartford has risen to social, cultural, and political prominence in record time relative to other immigrant groups in the region. They have pioneered bilingual education measures, founded innovative agencies like the Hispanic Health Council and Mi Casa, and generously reached out to people of all ethnicities in need. Their cultural imprint on the city is unmistakable, and their history important. This trail helps preserve voices, spaces, and memories that document a community’s foundation, growth, and achievements.
The Heritage Trail has three segments that follow the three major inter-city migrations; sites have been chosen based on their ability to convey stories of Puerto Rican history and culture in Hartford, or on their national significance. Priority has been given to standing buildings or landscapes that still exist in their historic form and can be visited or viewed from the exterior. Those sites that have been significantly changed, such as Seyms Street Jail/Lozada Park and Maria Sanchez’s store, were considered because they have been well documented. In addition, sites were chosen that:
1 represent a “first” such as first school or church, or
2 are associated with a person, event, issue, or place of local and or national importance, or
3 has multiple meanings or uses that convey the Puerto Rican experience, and
4 are within the boundaries of Hartford.
The spaces chosen for the Heritage Trail enhance the sense of the Puerto Rican people’s identity for these structures, their sounds, smells and communal activities serve as homely pleasures. They symbolize experiences at times difficult to articulate, but easy to experience with a short walk down one of the paths.
For more information or nomination of sites to the trail please contact:
Carol T. Correa de Best, creator of the Puerto Rican Heritage Trail.
A Brief History of Puerto Ricans in Hartford and their Adaptation to the City’s Spaces
Hartford is considered an immigrant city. Since its urbanization, Hartford has been built by immigrant and migrant laborers who brought with them certain social structures and cultural values. Due to the overwhelming amount of immigrants/migrants the city’s social structure changed to reflect the idealogy of that specific group. As the group ‘moved up’ the social ladder they would move out of the city and settle into the suburbs, leaving ‘new immigrants’ to move in. Each group added to the expanding diversity of Hartford, this trail outlines how Puerto Ricans utilized the spaces within the city to create a change for themselves and others who will follow.
As with all other cities, Hartford has a front and back side. One’s impression when arriving to the capital is that of a typical New England city. Its architectural style varies from Colonial, Italianate, Queen Anne, High Victorian, Gothic, Romanesque, Beau-Arts, and Georgian amongst others. The historical movement of people into its interior, however, has given it a sense of spatial asymmetry as waves of new comers constructed and reshaped Hartford’s neighborhoods according to the needs of their race, culture, and economic status. The spaciousness of a city gave Puerto Ricans the freedom to express their cultural identity as they carved out unique public and private spaces for their own use.
How did Puerto Ricans acquire the ability to not only adapt to but to thrive in a strange environment?
Early stories told by the first generation suggest that Puerto Ricans had a sense of direction and a goal from the moment they reached “allá fuera”. They came to work and to send money back home to help family that had been left behind. Some came to make money to purchase a house back home, others came to build houses and lives here. Perhaps early migrants looked at New York and what Puerto Ricans had accomplished there, and when Hartford became familiar to them, they mastered their physical environment, they decided to stay and make it their home.
In the beginning Puerto Ricans did not consciously plan how to live in the city. Like other migrant groups, they noticed the obvious-that Hartford was an organization of human space based on ethnicity and social class. The “affordable” area seemed uniquely comprised of immigrants, lacking mobility and money. The spaces available for Puerto Ricans in the Clay Hill neighborhood were crowded and run down, and quality of life and mental health suffered accordingly. Waves of Puerto Rican migrant workers could afford little property of their own. Therefore they anchored their cultural personality in objects, places, religion, and language. Click here to listen to Councilman Luis Cotto talk about Racial Lines that divided the neighborhood.
The Puerto Rican community began to create alternative resources and public spaces and agencies that would become their unique signature on the city. Community leaders rose up to catalyze people’s feelings, images and thoughts to establish a tangible environment that was supportive and welcoming. Puerto Ricans adapted and (semi)assimilated, and under favorable conditions won the confidence of the City’s leadership. Migrants used what they had, motivated by the desire to seek opportunities in a freer and more economically viable environment. As Hartford represented this environment, they learned how to command its space and feel at home in it. Amongst all the unfavorable impressions of poverty, drugs, alcohol, and crime, the city offered a unique setting, topography, skyline, odors, street noises, and wide range of temperatures that stimulated the senses as well as the active and reflective mind. The result was a topographical landscape that, although it did not look like their former lush, tropical haven of colorful colonial buildings, felt like and became home. In 1960 Connecticut had 15,247 identified Puerto Ricans, in 1980 CT had 88,361 and in 1990 Connecticut had the 6th largest Puerto Rican population in the states. Hartford had the most concentrated Puerto Rican population. It was 27% Puerto Rican.
Ultimately Puerto Ricans gained the advantage of residential crowding-a socially conscious, gregarious community warmth that has made Hartford one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the United States. There is no doubt that some migrants were frustrated at the awareness that land and resources were limited, that racial and language discrimination held the masses back. Many were and still are part of the urban poor, frustrated from shuffling in the unemployment and welfare lines, yet the city feels spacious and friendly in its accommodation of them. The social and architectural space of Puerto Ricans in Hartford, with its blightful beauty, tells stories that cannot be overlooked. It offers a heightened awareness of identity and articulates a unique migrant experience that is deeply felt throughout the neighborhoods in which Puerto Ricans settled.
So what is the Puerto Rican space today, and how is it occupied?
Indicators that you are in a Hartford Puerto Rican community are: 1) the music, with its integration of the old with the modern-salsa, merengue, reggaeton and hip hop-pulsing out of car and apartment windows 2) the obvious red, white and blue Puerto Rican flag hanging from car mirrors, window sashes, and doors 3) the distinctive and pleasant aromas that emanate from restaurants, bakeries and bodegas. 4) bilingual sensibilities, both in signage and in street conversations 5) The people come from a wide range of skin color from the most beautiful dark chocolate brown to the impressionable blue eyed, curly hair natural blonde as well as the unique “rubia or roja de botella” 6) As on the island, the men hang out in front of the bodegas sharing their amorous adventures, unemployment woes and whatever else is on their mind. 7) The inhabited public space is open it has no boundaries, it is claimed for traditional holidays and events such as: 3 Kings celebration, the PR parade, Park St concerts, and religious processions. 8) During the Christmas holidays the street lamps are strung with colorful lighting and traditional Puerto Rican aguilnaldo’s, merengues and boleros can be heard emanating from local businesses. 9) The façades of the business are transformed to reflect the ‘Old San Juan’ island architectural style and pastel colors. 10) The people are friendly, quick to smile and say buenos días, o buenas tardes.
These many factors lend character to objects and places making them uniquely urban Puerto Rican.
Our Neighborhoods: The Three Sections of the Puerto Rican Heritage Trail in Hartford
To know a neighborhood requires the identification of significant localities, such as street corners and architectural landmarks, within its space. Space is experienced directly as having room in which to move, and visual space has structure and permanence, social and economic significance. When we visit unknown neighborhoods we lack the weight of the real and of the familiar, because we only know it from the outside, and don’t understand how its space is constructed and arranged, and what its boundaries are. We also construct social space as we walk it everyday doing daily tasks. These trails will give you a community’s view of how it maps its space according to the places that most matter to its daily functioning.
This Heritage Trail is based on Juan Fuentes’ chronicling of Puerto Ricans as having had three migratory movements within the city. According to Mr. Fuentes, Puerto Ricans began in the Clay Arsenal neighborhood of Hartford, later moved to South Green, and then were pushed further to the Frog Hollow and Parkville sections – areas Boricuas are currently abandoning and new immigrants embracing. Click here for more on Puerto Rican Movement.
Juan Fuentes arrived to Hartford in 1963 at the age of 31. The city was rapidly growing. The neighborhoods were vibrant; you could find anything you needed within walking distance. There were theaters, hotels, hardware stores, cafes and clothing stores. He recalls that there also was a lot of prejudice. His family and friends lived in overcrowded apartments and basements. When he arrived Puerto Ricans worked “their fingers raw” in “el tabaco” to send money back home. Don Juan Fuentes-Vizcarrondo has devoted his life to preserving those Puerto Rican Hartford memories in photos, for his passion is to capture the Puerto Rican community and its experience in a history of images that tell a compelling story of migration, adaptation, and cultural pride. Amongst many images are: “the 1972 visit of Marisol Malaret, the first Puerto Rican Miss Universe; the first San Juan Festival in 1978, where the great Tito Puente performed; the swearing-in of Juan Figueroa, the state’s first Puerto Rican state representative; the Los Macheteros trials in 1985 – – not to mention the hundreds of baptisms and weddings he has chronicled at Immaculate Conception and other Park Street churches.”
As he conveyed to me, “Things will change, todo cambia mi’ja. The only way we can show how we were is by photographs. Hay videos nena, pero once you freeze a moment with your camera, no matter what you do to the photograph, the moment is frozen por eternidad, for future generations.”
Virtually Walking the City
The positive experience that I have had as a Puerto Rican in Hartford has encouraged me to be aware of its unique environment and has given me the desire to capture Puerto Rican Hartford’s essence in words and maps. For this reason I have worked to write, research, organize and upload this content, with the help of the class Hispanic Hartford of Spring 2009, Professor Anne Gebelein, Trinfo Café director Carlos Espinosa, The Hartford History Center and Samuel Medina.
Aqui Me Quedo, Puerto Ricans in Connecticut, by Ruth Glasser, Connecticut Humanities Council, 1997
Space and Place, The Perspective of Experience, by Yi-Fu Tuan, University of Minnesota Press, 1977
Portraits and interviews by Stephen Dunn. . “JUAN FUENTES PHOTOGRAPHER Series: Hartford Legends Sixth of an Occasional Series :[STATEWIDE Edition]. ” Hartford Courant [Hartford, Conn.] 19 Nov. 2000,3. Hartford Courant. ProQuest. Trinity College, Hartford, CT 28 Apr. 2009 <http://www.proquest.com/>
Interview, Juan Fuentes, Jan.2009