Connecticut Latinos Gaining Influence in Politics, Media and Economics
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Carmen Espinosa’s life has had a subtly different cast. Born in Puerto Rico, she was by birth an American citizen as are all Puerto Ricans. Brought to Connecticut as a child, she was raised in a New Britain housing project. Both of her parents worked hard, and she excelled in school even while working at a grocery store to pay for college tuition. After getting a bachelor’s degree from Central Connecticut State University, she earned a master’s from Brown University and a law degree from George Washington University. She is just one of the many success stories—perhaps the most visible to the state at large—that serve as touchstones for the Latino community.
Mark Overmyer-Velázquez’s mother crossed the border from Mexico in 1950, and he was born in Chicago but mostly raised in British Columbia. His view of his Latino roots is via historical overviews of the “Mexican diaspora,” which he has documented in numerous publications, including award-winning books he’s edited such as Visions of the Emerald City (Duke University Press) and Beyond la Frontera: The History of Mexico-U.S. Migration (Oxford University Press). He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard and at Universidad Católica in Santiago, Chile, and earned several fellowships along the way to his present post as director of El Instituto, the Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean and Latin American Studies at the University of Connecticut-Storrs.
Asked if he considers himself a part of Connecticut’s “Latino community,” Overmyer-Velázquez says, “the quick answer is ‘yes,’ but there are so many subtleties and nuances to that term. In Connecticut and elsewhere, this Latino community is always growing and shifting and we are all constantly having to rethink what that term means. I interact as a Latino in a lot of ways, in schools, in my family life, in my daily life and travels.”
Before moving to Connecticut, he had heard the “standard narrative” about Connecticut.
“Multiple white suburbs surrounding a few mixed cities is how it went. But that’s inaccurate now,” he says, “especially in the last 15 years. All towns, regardless of the percentage of their Latino population, are having to contend with issues related to it. I live in West Hartford, which had its own traditional narrative as a rich, predominantly white town, but it’s now 40 percent minority and there are 71 different languages spoken by residents. West Hartford mirrors a lot of what’s going on all over Connecticut.”
Because the Latino population is dispersed throughout the state, there is no single cultural center for all Latinos. “That would certainly help with cohesion,” says Overmyer-Velázquez. “The Puerto Ricans are the most well-established community but within the Latino community there are sub-levels around which people unite. Solidarity is often nation-centric and even within that, people in, say, the Puerto Rican community, find solidarity from the particular town or region they’re from. It’s infinitely subtle.”
As part of his job at Connecticut Voices for Children, Orlando Rodriguez says he constantly “fiddles with numbers,” partly to augment his policy recommendations but mostly because statistics are hard-and-fast markers that possess no political agenda.
Lately, Rodriguez has uncovered a pattern in the state’s numbers indicating what he calls the “fragmentation” in the Latino community. “Using the I-91 corridor as the dividing line, when you go east of that, the Hispanic populations are overwhelmingly Puerto Rican,” he says. “The numbers show that when they fill out the census, they mark the box for ‘Hispanic’ but they also mark the box for ‘other’ under ‘race’. West of the I-91 corridor, toward New York City, there are fewer Puerto Ricans, and the Hispanics living there are more likely to mark the ‘race’ box as ‘white,’ not ‘black’ or ‘other.’ You probably need the sociologists to tell you why that is, but that’s what the numbers show.” (See box prepared by Rodriguez on p. 44.)
“Latino is a term of convenience,” says Ruth Glasser, professor of U.S. ethnic and Latino history at the University of Connecticut-Waterbury. “It does not account for the diversity of the individual communities in the state. It’s amazing how diverse Connecticut is.”
Glasser, who is not herself Latino, became involved in Latino studies in graduate school at Yale. “I found out about an oral history project to study the role of music in the Puerto Rican community of Waterbury,” she says. “I began to study Puerto Rican culture and it grew more interesting to me.” Glasser wrote her dissertation on the subject and, ultimately, her work with the Waterbury musicians became the basis for a series of public-television broadcasts.
“People make a lot of mistakes by assuming you can get a portrait of the Latino community by focusing on elected leaders or celebrities as representatives,” she says. “But that doesn’t take into account members of the community who are part of the day-to-day struggle to keep neighborhoods safe and children healthy. Thus, the portraits that emerge are often skewed, with either already well-known politicians or stories about criminals and gangs.”
In the two decades that she’s taught at the university, Glasser has seen waves of Latino populations, predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican but also Chilean, seated in her classrooms, all facing the same sorts of obstacles. Not the least of which sometimes are self-imposed preconceptions and misinformation that accrue to any minority population. “I ask my students all the time, ‘Why are Latinos always described with words like ‘hot’ or ‘spicy’?” she says. “Stop it with the ‘spicy.’ Let’s get rid of this demeaning sort of stereotype.”