Connecticut Latinos Gaining Influence in Politics, Media and Economics
When Appellate Court Judge Carmen E. Espinosa was nominated to Connecticut’s Supreme Court in January by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the state’s Latino community cheered. Espinosa, 63, the first Latina to be named to the state’s high court, had accrued a few other “firsts” before arriving at this honor, and she was happy to tick them off in a public statement to the Judiciary Committee at the state Capitol: “the first Hispanic, and the first Hispanic female, Superior Court judge in Connecticut” and “the first Hispanic judge to sit on the Connecticut Appellate Court.” When she was confirmed on March 7, Judge Espinosa also became the only state Supreme Court justice in the nation of Puerto Rican descent.
Given all these “firsts,” an unspoken question hangs in the air:
What took so long?
After all, Latinos or Hispanics—those state residents who, by General Statute definition, are “persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or other Spanish culture or origin, regardless of race”—comprise nearly 14 percent of Connecticut’s population and 16 percent of the public-school population, based on the latest U.S. Census (2010). This translates to about 482,000 people, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which makes Connecticut’s the 17th-highest population of Latinos in the nation. They are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority in the state, expanding at a rate 12 times the rest of the population.
Why has it taken this long for such a large, politically and economically influential portion of the population to rise to the highest positions of power?
Making blanket statements about the Latino community is fraught with peril. First, what does “Latino” and/or “Hispanic” really mean? Or, more importantly, what do these terms mean, if anything, to the people ostensibly defined by them? Second, Latino communities in Connecticut are so culturally distinct from one another that seemingly obvious connections—such as the Spanish language and Catholicism—are no longer ironclad markers.
“The concern I have with the terms ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ is that they are too homogenizing,” says Orlando Rodriguez, a senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children in New Haven. “You are really missing a lot of the diversity by interchangeably using these terms.”
Rodriguez, former manager of the Connecticut State Data Center at UConn-Storrs, points to a Pew Hispanic Center survey conducted last year, “When Labels Don’t Fit: Hispanics and their Views of Identity.”
“The study showed that there is something of a Latino identity crisis in this country,” says Rodriguez. “When asked ‘How do you think of yourself?,’ respondents found the labels to be contrived. Those who came here identify with their country of origin, but the children born here think of themselves as Americans. Period. It’s no different from what happened with Irish, German, French and Asian immigrants before them.”
Rodriguez’s own life has followed that pattern. Born in Cuba, he was brought to Louisiana at age 3 and has no memory of his native country. “I grew up in New Orleans and think of myself as an American,” he says. “My parents came to the United States in their 30s and thought of themselves as Cubans.”
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.”
She does point out, though, that—not surprisingly—Puerto Rican students aren’t identifying with issues related to gaining legal citizenship status that often obsess other Latino students.
“Any campaign that would cover immigration issues in the Latino community would need a broader political vision to attract Puerto Ricans,” she suggests. “But then, every town and city in Connecticut is different politically. Hartford has one of the largest Puerto Rican populations anywhere outside of the island itself, and they are part of the power structure. But in Waterbury, which has a large Latino community, it’s a struggle just to get a Latino on a city board, any city board.”
From her experiences working with Latino nonprofits, Glasser has found that cronyism, long a tradition in the Brass City, is “alive and well.” “If you don’t know someone on the inside, then you’re pretty much squashed,” she says.
The numbers bear this out. Latinos now comprise 31.2 percent of Waterbury’s population, yet there’s not a single Latino member on the Board of Aldermen and only one on the Board of Education. In the past year, efforts to get a new school building named in honor of a notable Latino have yet to bear fruit.
But political apathy may also play a role. Rodriguez has noticed that “by and large” the Latino community is not deeply involved with the local political scene in the towns and cities where they live. “I go to countless meetings of local political bodies, as part of my work with Connecticut Voices for Children, and I’m often the only Latino in the room,” he says.
Overmyer-Velázquez is a member of the school board in West Hartford and adviser to the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission (cga.ct.gov/lprac). The LPRAC has lately been in the news as Gov. Malloy has proposed folding the commission into a larger entity for budgetary reasons. But the commission is the single most important and unifying connection the Latino community has to their state government, says Overmyer-Velázquez, who adds that with the populations increasing, the shrinking of the department makes no sense.
“The commission is the go-to place for information, resources and surveys, and it’s the best way to track legislation that has an impact on the lives of Latinos in the state, issues like in-state tuition, roadside checks by police, health and education,” he says.
Overmyer-Velázquez cites a recent news event that points up some of the issues facing Hispanics here. It involved St. Rose of Lima Parish, a church in New Haven’s Fair Haven community led by Father James Manship, whose congregation includes 19 different countries of origin. Though not a Latino himself, Father Manship served as a catalyst for bringing the problems faced by the state’s Latino community to wider notice.
In February 2009, while investigating allegations by members of his congregation that a cadre of East Haven police officers were systematically harassing Latino (mostly Ecuadorian) businesses and residents, Father Manship videotaped such an encounter. The officers confiscated his camera and then, absurdly claiming they thought he had a gun, arrested him. The arrest was on the front pages of newspapers across the state and even made national news. A class-action lawsuit was filed against the town and the Department of Justice investigated the possibility of criminal civil-rights violations. Ultimately, four officers were arrested and charged with harassment in January 2012, at which point East Haven Mayor Joe Maturo made things worse with ethnically insensitive remarks about “tacos” when asked about the pattern of harassment against the Ecuadorians in his town.
“It seemed to me that, in the past, Latinos only got coverage in the traditional media with stories on crime or immigration,” says Diane Alverio, publisher of CTLatinoNews.com, an English language website that covers local news and issues in the state. “The mainstream media were not reaching Latinos, most of whom prefer getting their news and information in English.”
Alverio, a veteran print and broadcast journalist, started CT Latino News in early 2012 out of her own frustration over this “huge blind spot” in traditional media coverage. “CT Latino News was needed because, as the census shows, more than 70 percent of the Latino community speaks English,” she says. “I instinctively knew this but only have had it confirmed since starting CT Latino News.”
Not only did Alverio get no pushback from the Latino community, she quickly found a receptive audience there. Spanish-language media, however, were less welcoming.
“They wanted to know what we were doing that they weren’t already doing,” she says. “But we have different audiences. Their audience needs to read in Spanish, many are newly arrived and some are bilingual. Our niche is local, and that’s why it works. We offer context to topics and issues. We’re producing our own material according to the highest standards and ethics. We criticize Latinos. This isn’t a pro-Latino site, it’s a site for news about the Latino community. We have Latino and non-Latino readers.”
All this is in keeping with Alverio’s sense of mission. Born in Puerto Rico, she was brought to Connecticut as an infant. Her father, a World War II veteran, earned a GED high-school diploma, spoke English and found a manufacturing job in Meriden, where Alverio was raised. She knew firsthand what she calls “the misperception of Latinos, and the negative stereotypes.” It is her contention that these sorts of misperceptions, rather than outright prejudice, are the biggest obstacles to Latino progress.
“As a reporter by training, I want to give as much information as possible to my readers,” says Alverio, who also runs her own public-relations firm in Farmington. “Media shapes values and attitudes. We are simply offering a broader base of information, filling a need that no one else was filling. We are also developing Latino journalists and getting them into the pipeline of the mainstream media.”
Fifteen years ago, when Alverio was the president of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, this did not seem possible or even conceivable. The technologies that have evolved since then, however, have allowed the Latino community to circumvent the boundaries that once seemed insurmountable, foremost of which was the dearth of Hispanic journalists in state newsrooms.
“We can now build something of our own,” she says. “We’re doing this here in Connecticut and others are doing similar things in other parts of the country. We have a small staff and a team of about 15 freelance writers who cover local issues around the state, writing in-depth stories and columns.”
One of the signs of the website’s success is that original stories are being pilfered and posted elsewhere without attribution. Although she’s not happy about it, Alverio does see a silver lining.
“Other outlets have been prodded into covering stories of interest to Latinos and that’s a good outcome,” she says. “News media are now using our stories and actually crediting us. We have 10 media partners, including CT Mirror.org, the Norwalk Hour, Bristol Press, NPR and NBC. People in key positions read us, from the governor’s office on down, from Senate and Congressional members. I think we have shifted some things in the state, made people rethink things.”
It seems that many factors besides the confirmation of Carmen Espinosa as a state Supreme Court Justice, are contributing to the burgeoning power of the Latino community—not least of which was, of course, the March election of the first Latino pope in the Roman Catholic Church’s history, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now known as Pope Francis. As Orlando Rodriguez says, the numbers “plain and simple” make this rising tide inevitable. He reiterated this point in a commentary he posted on the Connecticut Voices for Children website. “In-state population growth is coming from the minority population. People moving to Connecticut are also mostly minorities. From 2000 to 2010, roughly 81,000 non-Hispanic whites left the state and about 127,000 minorities moved in,” he wrote. “The U.S.-born children of immigrants are making America more American as they expand our immigrant heritage, and they will make significant and needed contributions to the country’s and Connecticut’s economic growth. What is quintessentially more American than the Americanized children of immigrants?”