When Juan Figueroa first met Carmen Rodriquez, it was 1987, she did not know him but she donated the maximum, $250.00 to his campaign. He was trying to un-seat a four-term democratic state representative who residents of the growing Puerto Rican population in Hartford’s Park Street neighborhood thought was no longer in touch with the changing demographics of his constituency. Rodriquez, did not live in the district, but as a staunch advocate for Latinos she understood the need for the change and acted on it. This, as many learned over the years, was her lifelong pattern – committing fully to social change.
Figueroa, who won the election recalls, “Naturally, I asked to meet with the woman who was one of the first donors to max out a donation to my campaign. That $250.00 donation marked the beginning of a three-decade personal and professional friendship.”
Rodriquez passed away this past week on what would have been her 83rd birthday. She leaves behind her family, friends and countless admirers who say she leaves an impressive 46 year legacy of dedication and advocacy for Puerto Ricans in Hartford.
Figueroa said of her passing, “Carmen Rodriguez will live in the pantheon of great Puerto Rican leaders in Hartford who selflessly dedicated their lives to their families and to their community.”
“More than anything, Carmen loved being Puerto Rican and pushing PR power–always for a social justice end,” Figueroa said, adding, “Carmen was a very unique PR leader of her generation,” Figueroa said, adding, “I always found her to have the most sophisticated and accurate analysis of power politics in the City and state. She was a fighter who garnered respect from her opponents and cheers from her base. She enjoyed political success because of her boundless courage and her deep convictions.”
She was born Carmen Milagros Rodriguez in the sugar mill pueblo of Aguirre, Puerto Rico and lived on the island until 1953 when she migrated to Buffalo, New York with her husband Faustino Rodriguez and raised her seven children there. While in Buffalo, she also obtained her GED, Bachelors in Education from Rosary Hill College, Masters in Education from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and began her PHD. Carmen was active in the Puerto Rican community in Buffalo as a member of the Puerto Rican Center, and in 1972 she was hired as the Director of Bilingual Education at Public School 76, later named the Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy.
In 1979, Carmen moved to Hartford, Connecticut to work at the Hartford Board of Education, managing the work places program assisting students to learn a trade. Soon she was recruited by city council woman, Mildred Torres-Soto to work for deputy mayor, Nicholas Carbone in evaluating the efficiency of that program for the City of Hartford. In 1981, she went to work for the executive director of the Hartford Housing Authority, John D. Wardlaw, in charge of the tenant education program for ten years. In 1991, she became executive director of La Casa de Puerto Rico, until she retired in 1994.
Her son Raul Rodriquez , an attorney with the CT Attorney General’s office, says it was always his mother’s passion to create change for the Puerto Rican community through politics. In addition to working with Figueroa’s campaigns, she also volunteered on numerous other political campaigns, including those of John Fonfara, Minnie Gonzalez, Pedro Segarra, Edwin Vargas, many town committee slates, at the state level, those of Dannel Molloy, Richard Blumenthal and George Jepsen, as well as congressional candidates Barbara Kennelly and John Larson. In all of her election work, her main thought was who would work hardest for the City of Hartford and her community. When asked what motivated his mother, Raul said, “She just always fought for what she though was right and she did not back down; it was in her DNA.”
Former Hartford State Representative Evelyn Mantilla said she too benefited from Carmen’s passion and wisdom. “I especially enjoyed working with Carmen in numerous political campaigns. I learned from her about how to reach our community and she encouraged and supported my strategies. When I was a legislator, if she had something to say, she did it with true conviction, even when she was disagreeing. Carmen was a tough cookie of the best kind. She commanded respect not just for herself but for an entire community.”
Many years later, Figueroa, who went on to become the executive director of PRLDEF and President of the Universal Health Care Foundation , would also be the first Latino to run for Governor in Connecticut. For that campaign in 2010, he once again turned to his friend, and as her nature, she would serve as one of his key leaders in Puerto Rico developing support and raising funds for his candidacy.
When Carmen decided to run for office, Figueroa volunteered on her campaign.” It was a tight race,” said Figueroa. “I will always cherish memories of working with her when she ran for the Hartford Board of Education and I had the privilege of being the lawyer who headed her ballot recount team. She won by a handful of votes.”
Carmen was predeceased by her husband Faustino who died in 1993. She leaves her seven children. In addition to Raul, there is Guillermo, Rafael, Faustino, Linda, Juan Carlos, Maria Del Carmen. Raul said their mother made sure they all pursued higher education; among them there are two attorneys, two M.B.A.s civil engineer, a computer programmer and a retired Marine. She also leaves 14 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren.” Update – 9:15 pm: The family plans to hold a memorial service February 17, 2018 at 10 AM at Holy Trinity church, 53 Capitol Avenue, Hartford with a reception following in the church hall.
Editor’s Note: I wanted to personally to write this article because I knew Carmen and wanted to share her story with our readers. I am one of Carmen Rodriquez’s multitude of admirers and knew of and benefited from her staunch advocacy for the betterment of all Puerto Ricans and the community. She is and will forever be part of the history of Hartford’s Puerto Rican community. –Diane Alverio