Robert Cotto, Jr: You Have To Remember To Come Back For Others


, , ,
Robert Cotto, Jr., reading to an elementary classroom for Read Across America.
By Adam Chiara

Teaching at a magnet school in Bloomfield next to the fields where his grandparents came from Puerto Rico to pick tobacco, Robert Cotto, Jr., felt like he had come “full circle.”
Education to Cotto, 32, is the key and he has dedicated his career to ensuring others have the educational opportunities he has had.  He has worked as a public school teacher, a lead researcher at Connecticut Voices for Children, and as an adjunct professor. He also ran and was elected to the Hartford Board of Education four years ago.
This past month, he became the director of urban educational initiatives at Trinity College in Hartford. For Cotto, a Dartmouth, Trinity and Harvard graduate, his new role provides him with a perfect opportunity to give back and to make sure the Latino community is being served.
“When you leave you must remember to come back for the others,” Cotto said quoting from the book “The House on Mango Street.” This premise has been a mantra for him over the years.
Cotto said part of the reason he was brought to Trinity is to explore the needs of urban communities and then to help meet those needs by finding the best methods and partnerships to address them.  He also will work on improving communication with neighborhoods and its leaders and policy-makers. The goal being that everyone will be pulling in the same direction to meet objectives.
“I want folks to see Trinity College as a leading place for students and faculty to learn about urban education,” he said, “and to produce things that are informative, and positive, and respectful of communities. Particularly, the Latino community.”
Respect for Latinos is important to Cotto, considering he was not always given it.
Three of his grandparents emigrated from Puerto Rico and one from Peru. Both of Cotto’s parents were born and raised in Hartford. As a child, Cotto grew up in Hartford until his parents were able to buy a house in the suburbs of Manchester.
This made his family one of the first Latino families living in the area.  “We experienced a certain amount of discrimination,” Cotto said. “For example, our house was vandalized…. it was clear they didn’t want us in the neighborhood.”
In high school, then living in Wethersfield, Cotto even remembered being discriminated against by his school guidance counselor.
“She didn’t think I should apply to certain schools because she didn’t think I would get in to them. She thought I had no chance,” Cotto said.  He was accepted into Dartmouth College and several others.
While he no longer faces the same level of discrimination as he did as a child, he believes it occurs for many Latino students, whether intentional or not.
“The direction of education reform either leaves out or, in some cases, is a problem for the Latino community,” Cotto said. “So that’s one of the things I’m thinking about as far as research and advocacy.”  He pointed to the example of addressing problems in school choice, where bilingual students are being underrepresented in magnet, charter, and technical schools.
“The state is expanding school choice programs…and we’re actually leaving behind the most vulnerable children; bilingual, often times Latino children,” Cotto said.
As the director of urban educational initiatives, Cotto has the ability to continue following the advice from “The House on Mango Street.” He wants to be a voice for urban students and Latinos. A voice he believes needs more support, especially in Connecticut.
Cotto lives in the southwest section Hartford, the same city that his parents grew up in and where they graduated from high school.