Hartford was burning.
In the late summer of 1969, long-simmering racial tensions in the city erupted in a series of often violent riots and clashes between members of the city’s Puerto Rican community and French Canadians. The riots had originally started on the evening of Aug. 10 when rumors began flying through the South Green neighborhood that members of the Comancheros, a white motorcycle gang, had assaulted a Puerto Rican elderly person the previous night at a popular Comanchero hangout.
In a paper about the riots published in the Journal of American History, Jose E. Cruz writes: “Crowds gathered, fights broke out, rocks and Molotov cocktails flew. The first arrests were all Puerto Rican and this incensed the already angry rioters. Cars were set ablaze. … someone broke into a mattress company, setting between twenty and thirty mattresses on fire. The motorcycle gang was seen in the area throughout the night but no members were arrested.”
A calming force amid this maelstrom of anger and injustice was a woman named Maria Sánchez. Known as “La Madrina” (The Godmother), Sánchez arrived in Hartford in 1954 at age 28. She had left her parents and five siblings in Comerío, Puerto Rico, in the hopes of creating a better life for herself on the U.S. mainland. Armed with only an eighth-grade education, she found work where she could, including in tobacco fields outside Hartford. Ultimately, she saved enough money to open her own storefront, Maria’s News Stand, at 238 Albany Ave. The spot became a gathering place for community involvement, while Sánchez became a friendly ear and impassioned advocate for the under-represented Puerto Rican community.
Lena Harwood Pacheco, education manager at the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, into which Sánchez was inducted in 1994, says, “Maria really served as a listener and a mentor to everyone in her neighborhood and they saw her almost as a member of their extended family.”
Pacheco says that during the Comanchero riots, “Maria was able to both help calm the rioting itself [and] also advocate for those who felt the need to riot by understanding the underlying causes of their unrest.”
In Maria Sánchez: Godmother of the Puerto Rican Community published by Connecticut Explored, a nonprofit magazine dedicated to Connecticut history, Cruz writes that “at one point during the disturbances, Sánchez placated a crowd of nearly 150 young men gathered at the intersection of Park and Main streets. She then brokered a meeting for the community to air its complaints and concerns. Participants included City Councilman Nicholas Carbone and City Manager Elisha Freedman. During the meeting, held at the South Green Multiservice Center on Main Street, Puerto Ricans told stories of police brutality, of being arrested in disproportionate numbers and without cause, and of being mistreated even when they tried to assist the police. Another councilman present, George Athanson, urged Puerto Ricans to run a candidate for city council.”
The meeting didn’t fully ease tensions; rioting would intensify shortly afterward when The Hartford Times published an article that included racist comments from two unnamed city residents. As the rioting continued, Puerto Rican residents were joined by members of the city’s black community, who had been angered by the shooting of a 16-year-old black teenager by West Hartford police and a tenement fire in a black neighborhood that killed three. In all, $1.17 million in damages were incurred, 67 stores were looted, a police officer was shot and 133 people were arrested, according to Cruz.
Despite the continued unrest, Sánchez’s role in the riots was not for naught. “During the riot, The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving announced that it would donate $78,640 to the Greater Hartford Community Council to address Puerto Rican needs,” Cruz writes.
Sánchez helped to ensure this money went to a variety of civic organizations aimed at supporting Puerto Ricans. After the riots she continued to be a voice for her community. She advocated successfully for the state’s first bilingual school, La Escuelita, which opened in 1972. A year later, Sánchez ran for a seat on the Hartford Board of Education and won, serving in that position for 16 years. In 1988 she became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Connecticut General Assembly. She died suddenly a year later in 1989, but her legacy continues to inspire.
In addition to her induction into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame, the Maria C. Sánchez Elementary School in Hartford was dedicated in 1991. Two years later Sánchez was commemorated in the Hartford Public Library’s Plaza of Fame. This fall her story was featured as part of Where I Live, Connecticut, a kid-friendly textbook and web resource created by Connecticut Explored and Connecticut educators that is geared at helping teachers implement the state’s history into their third- and fourth-grade classes.
However, Pacheco says there is much of Sánchez’s legacy “that maybe we have not honored or celebrated enough.” She notes that La Escuelita eventually closed. “That’s an interesting thing in this political time, and in this time when people are migrating more from Puerto Rico given the recent hurricane. I think it’s interesting to think about what role bilingual education may play in our future.”
This article appeared in the January 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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