Scores of dignitaries and officials, including the governors of Puerto Rico and Connecticut, plan to attend the ribbon cutting set for noon, Saturday, April 28 to celebrate the completion of the eagerly awaited 65th Infantry (Borinqueneers) Monument in New Britain, but they will not be the center of attraction.
“The day belongs to the Borinqueneers, their families and veterans,” said Carmelo Rodriguez, chairman of the New Britain Latino Coalition, a local organization which played a key role in the seven-year effort to erect a suitable tribute to the service and sacrifice of the Puerto Rico soldiers, who were assigned to a segregated unit, but fought alongside other Americans in three 20th Century wars.
While their ranks have thinned through the years, a few Borinqueneers from the Korean War will be guests of honor Saturday. These include Joseph Pickard of Wethersfield and Celestino Cordova of New Haven, who will be escorted to New Britain by the Borinqueneers Motorcycle Club, which also has been behind this project from its inception.
Based on the feedback they have been receiving and invitations accepted, the project’s organizers expect a large turnout for the ceremony, which is expected to run about an hour.
“People have been waiting for years for this,” said state Rep. Robert Sanchez of New Britain, who helped secure state funding for the monument. “Ask any Puerto Rican and they have somebody in their family who served in the Borinqueneers,” said the state representative whose personal link is through two uncles.
While special seating will be set up for the Borinqueneers and their families, others attending should plan to arrive early. “Get there by 11 a.m.,” Rodriguez said.
The police have arranged for temporary parking along nearby streets and at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church on Washington Street. Also, the city will run shuttle buses from its parking lot on Washington Street.
The monument is the centerpiece of the 65th Regiment Borinqueneers Memorial Park which is located at the intersection of Beaver Street, Washington Street, and Farmington Avenue. The park is on land the city obtained from the state a few years ago and will be monitored by the local Veterans Commission with input from the Latino Coalition.
The monument has drawn the attention from veterans groups across the nation who are contemplating similar recognition in their cities and have asked Rodriguez for information.
“This really puts New Britain on the map,” said Sanchez. “There is nothing like this, he said, noting the closest thing to the New Britain monument is the tribute pillar erected in San Juan, Puerto Rico. “Ours is better,” he added.
The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico will be well-represented Saturday, Rodriquez said, with the attendees including Governor Rossello, Resident Commissioner Jenniffer Gonzalez and Abel Nazario, a senator at large of the Senate of Puerto Rico.
The visitors from the island, called Borinquen by its indigenous residents, will quickly recognize one of the prominent features of the 12-foot high monument. The structure’s profile imitates the iconic garitas, the domed lookout towers of El Morro, the 16th century fortress guarding San Juan. The mini-turrets will illuminate the area with the walkways lighted by a series of fixtures replicating the Fallen Soldiers Battle Cross, which consists of a rifle stuck into a pair of combat boots with a helmet on top.
Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut has indicated he will attend, as will U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal and numerous state and local officials. Dennis E. Gonzalez, the acting regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for Region II (which includes Puerto Rico, New York and New Jersey) and Dr. Zulma Toro, the new president of Central Connecticut State University, also have accepted invitations.
The Connecticut project took longer than its proponents had initially hoped. Some of the hurdles to be cleared included obtaining a suitable site (the original choice was Hartford) and the need to raise funds, a matter resolved when Sanchez, guided by the now deceased Rep. Betty Boukus of Plainville, arranged for a $300,000 grant from the state bonding commission.
Moreover, the actual construction, which began last summer, took longer than anticipated. The addition of a few final touches, such as the lamb figure inspired by Puerto Rico’s official seal, and a pedestal, taking place in the days before the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“Getting the monument completed became a passion,” said Rodriguez, who expressed mixed feelings along with pride at what was achieved. “I am happy we now have the monument, but also I am sad because we lost a couple of guys waiting for it to be done,” Rodriguez said.
Pickard and Cordova were among the orginal proponents of building a monument to the U.S. military’s last segregated unit to go into battle. They also attended the April 2016 Medal of Honor ceremony in Washington, D.C. when President Obama and leaders of the U.S. House and Senate presented the regiment with the Congressional Medal of Honor, which had been approved two years earlier.
“From the 1950s to 2014 they waited for a medal, which was way overdue,” Rodriguez said.
New Britain Mayor Erin Stewart will preside over the ceremony which will feature performances by local Hispanic recording artists and the raising of the flags of the United States, Puerto Rico and Connecticut. Blumenthal is providing a flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. and the Puerto Rican flag is from the commonwealth’s capital building in San Juan.
Blumenthal and Sanchez will present citations to the Borinqueneer veterans and their families. The senator will also award a replica of the Congressional Medal of Honor to a family from Cornwall whose father served with the 65th in World War I.
Among those Borinqueneer families coming to the ceremony, Rodriguez said, are several with relatives whose bodies were not recovered in Korea and are still listed as missing in action.
The long list of public officials who have confirmed they will be at the ceremony includes the Latino members of the state Legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus and Samantha Slade, the first Puerto Rican elected to the Cromwell Town Council. In addition, the city of New Britain also will have a large contingent of elected officials and members of various boards and commissions, Rodriguez said.
The Hispanic American Veterans of Connecticut (HAVOCT) and other veterans organizations also will be represented, as will be several Hispanic leaders from New York. These include Ruben Estrada, who was national co-chairman of the Borinqueneers Stamp Committee, which leads the push for the issuance of a commemorative stamp honoring the Puerto Rican regiment.
U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy of Connecticut will not be able to attend Saturday due to a family obligation, however members of his staff will be present. The senator issued the following statement:
“The Borinqueneers fought hard for our country, despite the discrimination they faced. I was proud to help secure the Congressional Medal of Honor for the 65th Infantry a few years ago. This new monument in New Britain was the result of a lot of hard work from community members. It will go a long way in continuing to honor the service and sacrifice of the Borinqueneers and their families.”
Rodriguez said recently he was still hoping that Dan Garcia, a member of the Borinqueneers Motorcycle Club who helped launch the monument project, will attend. After bringing people together for the monument campaign, Garcia moved to Florida a few years ago due to his work.
However, Garcia recently sent a message, which Rodriquez said sums of the seven-year effort to honor the Borinqueneers. This email states: “The monument didn’t happen by the labor of any single person but was the vision of a few and the labor of many.”