Jason Ortiz had returned to Connecticut last fall from seeing first-hand the economic and humanitarian toll inflicted on Puerto Rico by its $70 billion debt crisis when he became involved in discussions with two other Puerto Rican political activists, Joseph Rodriguez and Wildaliz Bermudez, about what could be done in Connecticut to help Boricuas on the island and in the United States.
Ortiz, whose forte is campaign organization; Rodriquez, a top aide to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Bermudez, a Hartford council member from the Working Families Party, agreed that it was critical for their cause to engage all Puerto Ricans, not just established leaders, but also nonpolitical, cultural, organized labor, civil rights, community and business people from across the state in charting solutions on a nonpartisan basis.
“We wanted to create a grassroots vehicle that would bring everyone together,” said Ortiz, who had managed Bermudez’s campaign and is now the council minority leader’s executive assistant.
Rodriguez is a member of the board of the recently launched National Puerto Rican Agenda and creating a Connecticut branch was on the table. Two days before the pivotal presidential vote in November, the group decided “let’s do it,” recalled Ortiz.
The NPRA was founded last summer by scores of Puerto Rican leaders and organizations from around country who wanted to mobilize stateside Boricuas toward building power to support the movements on the island and to advance Puerto Ricans causes in the states, such as bilingual education, better healthcare and recognition for Hispanic history and culture.
In Connecticut, a half year of planning and meetings at various sites across the state will come to fruition on June 3 at the Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy at 360 Columbus Avenue in New Haven. The Connecticut Puerto Rican Agenda will be formally incorporated as the first state chapter of the national alliance.
“We are ahead of other states and being viewed as a model,” explained Ortiz, an eastern Connecticut native who is a candidate to become chairman of the new group.
The need for a statewide coalition was summed up by Rodriguez, who noted that there are roughly 270,000 Puerto Ricans living in Connecticut. “The Puerto Rican story runs deep in many communities across our state. From Hartford to New Haven and Willimantic to Bridgeport, we continue to grow, and with the economic crisis in Puerto Rico we will only grow at a faster rate,” he added.
“This is why we must mobilize and organize now, both our community here and our brothers and sisters on the island,” said Rodriguez, who is a member of the national group’s board.
The June 3 assembly will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and offer talks by some of the more familiar faces in Latino activism such as Ingrid Alvarez, Connecticut director of the Hispanic Federation; Frank Alvarado of the Small Business Administration and the CT Hispanic Democratic Caucus, and Yanil Teŕon, executive director for the Center for Latino Progress.
Other participants include a Latin-America studies graduate student, the founder of a rap league, the leader of a grassroots Boricua unity movement in Puerto Rico, bilingual educators, healthcare experts and an associate professor of pharmacy from a Florida university.
Connecticut coalition’s agenda is expected to include finding a new generation of leaders, training in the use social media, development of after-school programs on Puerto Rican history and being present at “lots of parades” to further voter registration and participation, Ortiz said.
The Agenda also plans to lobby with other groups on Puerto Rican concerns and those affecting other Latinos, such as immigration. “We aren’t just for Puerto Ricans, we are for Latinos, too,” Ortiz said.
CT-PRA’s interim organization was built through a series of meetings held at six different sites across the state. “Each one (of the meetings) had a different flavor,” Ortiz said.
The core group includes several seasoned politicians such as state Rep. Edwin Vargas, a Hartford Democrat; Carmelo Rodriquez, a Republican and a leader of the nonpartisan Latino Coalition in New Britain; James Flores, a third-party member of the Windham council; multi-term state Reps. Minnie Gonzalez of Hartford and Hilda Santiago of Meriden, and Yolanda Castillo, who like Rodriguez has been a leader of the CT Hispanic Democratic Caucus.
Several members of a newer generation of activists also came forward, including Rep. Chris Soto, a New London Democrat; Kristian Rosado, a Republican member of the New Britain governing body; Meriden counselor Miguel Castro, a Democrat; Wildaliz Bermudez and her sister Eva, an organizer for the state employees union, and Melvin Medina of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
The nascent CT-PRA also attracted people with cultural and community ties such as Alex Mercado of Roberto Clemente Baseball and Samuel Vega, who is involved in boxing and the Puerto Rican Parade in Hartford.
Bermudez and Ortiz will play host to the founding assembly, which “all are welcome to attend,” Rodriguez said. In the afternoon Agenda members will elect officers and a board. This will include choosing leaders from each of the state’s eight counties.
In the morning, more than a dozen state, local and federal government officeholders along with various community, health care, civil rights and cultural leaders will speak individually or participate in educational workshops.
The topics to be covered include bilingual education, civic engagement on the local level, health care, growing the Puerto Rican business community and working in solidarity with the movements on the island.
The lunch topic will be an explanation of what is the National Puerto Rican Agenda and outline its mission.
One of the national group’s initial priorities was the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera, the former leader of the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) who had been in federal prison for more than 35 years. This goal was achieved at the end of 2016 when President Obama commuted the Puerto Rican militant’s sentence. The Puerto Rican independence leader was released on May 17.
Lopez Rivera is scheduled to visit Hartford on June 20 to thank its residents for supporting his release. The city was one of the first in the region to pass a resolution supporting this release. Bermudez introduced this measure.
Information about CT-PRA and its founding assembly is available at ctpuertoricanagenda.com and at CT Puerto Rican Agenda on Facebook.