At a time when many public statues and war memorials are coming down as symbols of racism and a civil war fought against the United States, there is growing sentiment, notably in Connecticut, to erect monuments to honor a group of Puerto Rican soldiers who overcame segregation and prejudice to fight with honor and sacrifice for this country.
These soldiers comprised the 65th U.S. Infantry Regiment, the Borinqueneers, a group of volunteers from Puerto Rico who served with distinction during three 20th Century wars and were the nation’s last segregated combat unit.
The newest tribute to the Borinqueers is the monument on Beaver Street in New Britain, which will soon be completed and dedicated on Oct. 7. This edifice, featuring a 12-feet high and 14-feet wide center panel, will be the centerpiece in a memorial park and serve as a statewide and regional tribute to the now deactivated regiment
The success of the locally driven campaign to create the New Britain memorial park is helping inspire a movement in Waterbury to dedicate a soon-to-be rebuilt East Liberty Street bridge to the 65th Infantry Regiment.
State Rep. Gerald Reyes Jr. has been lining up support for this project which will include placing a commemorative plaque on the South End span. He said construction is about a “year away.”
Connecticut has been in the forefront of this movement to secure overdue recognition for the Borinqueneers. A Bridgeport native, Frank Medina, spearheaded a national effort that lead to President Obama presenting a Congressional Gold Medal to the 65th Infantry Regiment in honor of its service in the two world wars and in the Korean conflict.
Two years ago, state Rep. Chris Rosario spearheaded a campaign which lead to a portion of State Route 127 in heavily Hispanic East Bridgeport being designated the “65th U.S. Infantry Regiment The Borinqueneers Memorial Highway.”
The Waterbury memorial will be unique in that everything will be handled through the municipal government, said Reyes, who formerly had worked in the mayor’s office. The New Britain monument is being built with $300,000 in state funds that state Rep. Robert Sanchez helped secure. In Bridgeport, state legislative approval was required to rename the road.
Reyes has been holding conversations with the local zoning board and the Board of Aldermen, where Victor Lopez is working with him. The state legislator also said that his former boss, Mayor Neil O’Leary, is “on board.”
Replacing the well-worn East Liberty Street bridge with a modern structure is seen as part of the effort to reinvigorate the South End of Waterbury. In addition, proponents of naming of the new bridge for the Borinqueneers envision this designation as fostering recognition and pride for the city’s large Puerto Rican community.
Waterbury’s population includes numerous descendants or relatives of soldiers who fought with the 65th Regiment during the Korean War and later migrated to Waterbury, attracted by a once booming industrial economy. A few of these veterans still are living in Connecticut.
In recent years, as Reyes read the obituaries of members of his city’s Hispanic community, he noticed that many of these people had served in the U.S. Army, including at least eight who were 65th Infantry Regiment veterans from the Korean conflict.
It is unfortunate, the state legislator said, that these soldiers were not recognized during their time.
Reyes said several members of his family served in the U.S. Army but none in the Korean War. “Three of my cousins were in Vietnam,” he added.
The future legislator’s mother was three months pregnant with Reyes when she arrived in Connecticut. He grew up speaking Spanish and started first grade with little knowledge of English.
Reyes’ political background was largely behind the scenes and includes more than a decade as a campaign manager in Waterbury. This effort included running successful District 75 campaigns for Victor Cuevas, his “best friend,” in 2012 and 2014.
In March 2016, Cuevas resigned his seat pending a guilty plea in a mortgage fraud case and Reyes won a special election for the South End seat. A few months later, he retained this post in the general election and now serves on the appropriations and commerce committees.
Reyes, 55, has been active an array of community endeavors and was the lead speaker when Roberto Clemente Night was held at Dunkin’ Donuts Park before a Yard Goats game in Hartford.
Although New Britain is outside his Waterbury district, Reyes was one of several state officials that attended the recent groundbreaking for the soon-to-rise monument. He credited this projected with increasing his enthusiasm to have the Borinqueneers honored in his hometown.
Reyes said that the more he has read about the Borinqueneers, the more he has been impressed with what they achieved.
The Waterbury Democrat noted that he is surprised that more has not been done, especially in Hartford and New Haven, to honor the Borinqueneers. He said these cities usually are leaders in recognizing their Puerto Rican communities.
There has been some interest in naming a street corner for the Borinqueneers in New Haven, according to one political activist.
Several monuments and memorials to the 65th Infantry exist in San Juan in Puerto Rico, in Florida and Massachusetts, and in several major mainland cities. The most recent compilation of these tributes is available at 65thcgm.weebly.com.
In Springfield, Mass., plans are under way to dedicate North Main Street as “The 65th Infantry Way.” This ceremony is expect to coincide with Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
The 65th Regiment, which chose its distinctive nickname from the original Taino designation, Borinquen, for their home island, is best known for its valor during the Korean War (1950-1953). The Borinqueneers were in the front lines during several fierce battles and thousands of individual awards and unit citations were bestowed on its members, including ten distinguished service crosses and a Medal of Honor for Master Sergeant Jane E. Negron.
“The Borinqueeners were invaluable and what they did equates with the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Reyes, referencing the famed African-American military aviators who earned numerous honors during World War II.
Both of these segregated units belatedly received Congressional Gold Medals, the Airmen in 2007 and the 65th Regiment in 2016.