As the sun shone brightly Saturday morning on Rafael Chiesa, the Korean War veteran smiled with pride as he and six other Puerto Rican men were saluted at a ceremony in Bridgeport to celebrate the redesignation of East Main Street in honor of their former combat unit, the 65th Infantry Regiment, the Borinqueneers.
State Rep. Chris Rosario, who had shepherded the renaming measure through the Legislature, had helped organize the program, which was staged outside the Veterans Service Center, which is located on East Main, to honor the famed regiment, which during its 50-year history of sacrifice and courage was almost exclusively comprised of men drawn from what Congress called “Porto Rico” when it authorized its formation in 1901.
The 150 attendees Saturday included U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch, state legislators, city officials and Hispanic veterans from Albany, N.Y. And Boston.
“It has been so many years,” Chiesa, who now lives in the Bridgeport area, said as he tried to remember his time with the 65th (1951-1953), which included being a prisoner of war.
It also had taken so many years since the regiment, whose name was derived from the Taino Indian name for the island, Boriquen, to receive the national recognition it earned in three U.S. wars, including some of the fiercest fighting of the Korean War. The 65th was this nation’s last segregated unit to actively participate in battles and was inactivated in 1956.
However, thanks to Latino activism, the Borinqueneers are no longer just a footnote in U.S. history. Last summer, Congress approved and President Obama signed legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the regiment.
In some rousing remarks Saturday, Blumenthal said he joined and lead the effort to award the 65th a Medal of Honor after he “learned about the sacrifices on the battlefield of these brave men.”
With that mission accomplished, an ongoing campaign to recognize the Borinquineers continues in places such as New Britain, where a commemorative park is planned and with street renamings in New York City, Philadelphia and now Bridgeport.
“We hope to spawn a chain reaction of recognition for the 65th across the country,” said Frank Medina, a Latino from Bridgeport and West Point graduate now living in Florida, who lead the national campaign to have the Borinqueneers receive the Medal of Honor.
In Bridgeport, a large brown sign indicating the northern starting point of the 65th U.S Infantry Regiment “The Borinqueneers” Memorial Highway was installed last week near the library branch at the southeast corner of East Main (state Route 127) and Boston Avenue (U.S. Route No. 1). The renamed street runs south to the Steel Point.
Mayor Finch described East Main Street as the “heart of the Latino community in Bridgeport — and for the entire state.”
Rosario had made getting East Main Street renamed for the 65th a priority when he was sworn in as a legislator in January. This drive culminated in the early hours of June 30 when the measure passed an amended budget bill. Legislative action was needed because the street is a state road.
State Rep. Ezequiel Santiago (D-130) helped Rosario push the measure through in Hartford. “When I heard what Chris was doing I signed up in a heartbeat,” the Bridgeport legislator said Saturday. The southern portion of East Main Street, which runs through Santiago’s constituency, was eventually added to the stretch in Rosario’s district.
Blumenthal recalled meeting several Borinqueneers in Puerto Rico, which had the largest concentration of 65th veterans, and hoped some day soon there could be a reunion of all these soldiers.
Bridgeport Councilwoman Milta Feliciano, who is the city’s director of veterans affairs, said she enjoyed working “with these great men” and that said she would see if a trip to Puerto Rico could be arranged for the local Borinqueneers.
Luis Rodriquez, a Borinqueneer now in his 90s, capped off the event by proclaiming “hallelujah, hallelujah,” which summed up the feeling of pride that Chiesa and other Hispanics shared Saturday.