Census 2020 Community

Danbury’s Ecuadorians cling to culture but venture into politics

By Bill SarnoCTLatinoNews.com

On Saturday, August 10, Danbury city officials and representatives of the local Ecuadorian community will gather at 11 a.m. in Heritage Plaza outside City Hall to raise the yellow, blue and red national flag of Ecuador.

Celebrating Heritage

This ceremony, one of several held every year for local ethnic groups, has been staged for the Ecuadorians for about a decade, according to a city spokesperson, and commemorates the start in 1809 of that South American nation’s long struggle for independence from Spain.

Photo: Ecuadorian Civic Center Of Greater Danbury, 2016

The flag-raising also in many ways underscores the growing presence of Ecuadorians in the city’s cultural and economic life. Danbury has the largest percentage of people from Ecuador outside of New York City and northern New Jersey, where most immigrants from Ecuador have settled.

It is estimated that as many as 8,000 people of Ecuadorian descent live in the Hat City and increasingly, this group, along with other Latinos communities such as those whose roots are in  Brazil and comprise the city’s largest ethnic groups, have given the business community a new look with their shops, markets, restaurants, and other business ventures.

The Ecuadorian Festival, which will be held  August 11, annually attracts thousands of people with roots in the South American country, including many from New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, to celebrate their homeland through music, folklore, food and “diversión”.

“For one day people feel they are in Ecuador,” said Wilson Hernandez, a founder of the 24-year-old festival and a recent past president of its presenting organization, the Ecuadorian Civic Center of Greater Danbury. “We get to see friends we haven’t seen all year,” he said.

The Ecuadorians also are known locally for their participation in winter and summer soccer leagues, including many organized by the Ecuadorian Civic Center of Greater Danbury, and at Christmas time religious processions “por las calles” that reflect their regional traditions.  

Representation

However, one place that the Hat City’s growing Latino community, now about 30 percent of the total population, and includes Puerto Ricans as well people from Brazil, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic, has been less apparent is inside City Hall.

Currently, the Ecuadorians, which comprise about 8 percent of Danbury’s 85,000 residents, are only represented in the elected municipal boards by Luis Bautista, a Republican, who serves on the Zoning Commission and is running again. Also, for several years, Republican Elmer Palma, a Guatemalan restaurateur, was the lone Latino on the council.

This situation could change significantly at this November’s municipal election. Both parties have nominated Latinos and, for the Ecuadorians, the Democratic lineup includes two ground-breaking candidacies.

“From what I know this is the first time that a person born in Ecuador is running for City Council,” said Wilson Hernandez, a former president of the Ecuadorian Civil Center and a prominent local restaurant owner.

Hernandez and Anjali Illescas, who shares his ancestry, but was born in the United States, are among several Latino candidates for the seven at-large council seats.

The Republicans, who dominate city government with longtime Mayor Mark Boughton and a 14-7 council majority also have several Hispanic newcomers joining Palma and Bautista on their 2019 slate. These include Dominicans Delvin Rodriguez, a former boxer and ESPN analyst, and Alex Rodriguez, a local businessman. Both are seeking district seats.

Wilson Hernandez
(Photo: The Story of Wilson Hernandez, Tribuna)

As for at-large candidate Hernandez, he is well known in Danbury for his Ecuadorian restaurant Mitad Del Mundo, whose name reflects his homeland’s position on the Equator. He also has extensive experience in leadership roles at the Ecuadorian Civic Center on West Street and the annual Ecuadorian Festival.

Hernandez said there has been a surge of interest in politics in his community, particularly among the newer generations. Furthermore, many have chosen to become Democrats, he said, because they see this party as having become more effective in helping immigrants.

However, this was not the case in the 2005-09, a period where anti-immigrant sentiment was stronger than now, Hernandez said. “We did not see the Democratic party defend immigrants then,” said the council candidate.

Kushner said there is more openness in the Democratic party now and an increased emphasis on engaging people from all sectors. “We want you to join us,” she said is the message to the city’s diverse communities.

Anjali Illescas

Illescas, the mother of three young children, said she has taken advantage of being a self-described “stay at home mom” to become active in the community. In addition, she works on a per diem basis as a social worker at a federally funded agency that assists unaccompanied minors who have immigrated from Central and South America.

A resident of Danbury since she was nine years old, Illescas has numerous relatives in Danbury. She said her interest in entering politics stems from meeting a lot of people at activities such as cooking classes and a United Way program. She said she has found people “diverse and  “accepting.” 

Illescas said her chief goal as a candidate is to “bring awareness of getting involved in politics” and to “make sure everyone’s voice is heard.” including people who look like her. She noted that there only are two women now sitting on the 21-person city council.

Along the way to her nomination for city council, Illescas participated in Emerged Connecticut, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office.

State Senator Julie Kushner, a Democrat whose 24th District is comprised mostly of Danbury has been a prime mover in getting Ecuadorians and other Latinos engaged in local politics.

Kushner said that during her successful campaign last year, she came to know several people from the Latino community. “It was obvious there were some wonderful leaders who should be working in the city’s political life,” Kushner said.

The state senator, who had a long career as a union organizer, including work in Puerto Rico, also said that the Ecuadorians and newcomers from the Dominican Republic, who also are becoming a large and active part of the community, are “up and coming” political forces. “They are only beginning to organize,” she said.

Coming to America

Most of the Ecuadorian immigrants in the United States were economic refugees. Their exodus was instigated by periodic upheavals with the first major trauma being the decline Panama Hat industry after World War II. Many of the newcomers arriving in the 1960s came from the Cuenca and Azuay areas, where the hat industry was concentrated and ended up in New York City.

For a period the flow of immigrants from Ecuador slowed but picked up in the 1980s and 1990 due to economic crises in the South American nation. Some of the migrants planned to return to Ecuador after spending a year or two earning money but settled here after the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 conferred legal status on many undocumented migrants.

Another reason immigrants stayed, Hernandez said, is because many had gotten into deep debt, often having paid intermediaries to come to the United States. “We didn’t want to fail,” he said.

An estimated 687,000 Hispanics of Ecuadorian origin resided in the United States in 2013 with less than 40 percent U.S. born, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. About 70 percent are in the New York City area.


According to the 2010 Census, the Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk region, which includes Danbury, ranked fifth among U.S. metropolitan regions with 13,335 Ecuadorians and the New Haven-Milford region was ninth with 6,680 Ecuadorians.


An ongoing sore point for some Ecuadorians in Danbury is that the Ecuadorian Consulate for the New England region is in New Haven “It should move to Danbury,” Hernandez said. Attempts to obtain information from Consul Maria Fabiola Bermeo Revilla were unsuccessful.

Danbury and the surrounding towns attracted many economically displaced Ecuadorians who heard life was less expensive than in the New York City area and there were jobs, although the hat industry was in a long decline and the last significant factory closed in 1967.

Some immigrants were drawn to Connecticut by relatives who had arrived earlier and sometimes painted a fake glowing image of their life in this country.

Hernandez said he arrived in the United States in 1985 via Mexico and took advantage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 to stay. It took his wife another ten years to gain entrance to this country, the restaurant owner said.

Unlike most Ecuadorians, Hernandez migration north was not driven by economic turmoil. “We did not come because we were starving in Ecuador; we were middle class,” he said, explaining that he was a high school teacher and his wife a nurse. However, he said, “most of his buddies” were leaving and he already had relatives here including a brother whom he helped.

Not Welcomed

For many of the earlier arrivals in Danbury, the transition to a new land was not easy. They encountered economic challenges and a community that was not overly friendly to immigrants although there already was a sizable Brazilian population by the early years of the 21st century.

Ecuadorians found it harder to integrate, Kushner said because they are brown and black people.

Moreover, the xenophobic pressure on the city government was particularly strong and hit a pinnacle on the September 19, 2006, arrest of 11 immigrant workers, all from Ecuador, by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in a sting operation. Local police reportedly had asked ICE for help in dealing with the immigrants.

The New York Times reported that an undercover police officer in Danbury, who was driving a van and posing as a contractor, picked up the day laborers at a park and delivered them to federal immigration agents. The men were arrested and placed in a deportation proceeding.

Mayor Mark Boughton, who now is seeking his tenth term, said the city had only supplied “logistical support” to the agents, according to a 2011 article in the Times.

Boughton, who was described in the Danbury News-Times as a strong proponent of immigration law enforcement and was quoted in the newspaper as saying the city was being miscast as the villain.  “Blame people who cross the border illegally,” the Republican leader said.

Eight of the day laborers eventually filed a landmark civil rights lawsuit which was settled in March 2011 with the plaintiffs getting $400,000 from the city and $250,000 from the federal government.

Due to the problems with the city during the 2005-2009 period, thousand of immigrants left the city, Hernandez said, “and not all came back.”

However, other immigrants were arriving and the percentage of people in Danbury claiming Ecuadorian roots grew from 2.92 percent in 2000 to 7.57 percent in the 2010 Census and this community continues to grow, now amounting to 8-10,000 residents areawide, Hernandez estimated.

In addition, children of Ecuadorian descent make up a significant portion of the diverse enrollment — 41 languages are represented — in the public school system. About half the district’s students are Latino.

Mayor Boughton was asked to share his perspective on the Ecuadorian community but did not respond.  

You Have To Have Faith

While Ecuadorians are working to raise their economic and political profiles, churches and the 25-year-old Ecuadorian Civic Center continue to play important roles for this community. 

Most of the Ecuadorians and other Latinos are Roman Catholic and attend churches such as St. Peter and Our Lady of Guadalupe churches that conduct services in Spanish and have Hispanic priests. Some Ecuadorians are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints which has a ward in Danbury.

The Rev. John Perez, the pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, said his parish has a big community of Ecuadorians who have “strong roots in the religious life and traditions of their ancestors.”

The pastor estimated that his parish includes as many as 2,000 families with 50 percent from Ecuador and  20 percent from the Dominican Republic.

Perez said church members belong to societies and other pious groups that have their own way to celebrate occasions such as “special devotions to the Blessed Mother and to the baby Jesus” These depend on the place in Ecuador where they originated, he said.

When new immigrants arrive, Perez said, the first thing they do is join a church, not only to be with other family members and for the various celebrations but also to establish a strong community tie if they get caught up in legal issues.

The Ecuadorian Civic Center, located in a brightly painted but aging building on West Street, is the major hub of that population’s cultural and social life. 

“If you belong to a parish it helps in court,” the pastor said, adding that he has received “beautiful letters from lawyers” stating that his letter to the court in regard to a parish member had helped stop the deportation process.

Ecuadorian Civic Center, 20 West St, Danbury

Both Bautista and Hernandez have been in the restaurant business and served as presidents of the Ecuadorian Civic Center, with the latter being succeeded this year by Oscar Pesantez.

The center’s soccer program runs year-round, Pesantez said, using the War Memorial building in the winter and Royce Park in the summer.

Depending on the season there may be as many as 60-70 teams involving children from 5 and up and adults. “The “open” team is where the best players are found,” Hernandez said, adding there also are “ladies and senior” teams.

The center also is the place Ecuadorians go to improved their English and for work-oriented programs. Each winter there is a Christmas party for families.

Following the 2016 devastating earthquake in Ecuador, the civic center became the focal point as the Danbury immigrant community collected food, diapers, paper towels, cases of water and more to help their homeland.

Each summer the civic center’s big event is the fair at Ives Music Center on the Lake Avenue Extension near Western Connecticut State University. Here, Ecuadorian singers, musicians, and even ethnic comedians are on the program that runs from 11 a.m. to about 8 p.m.

The size of the fair crowd varies and largely depends on the popularity of the Ecuadorian performers coming to the outdoor performing arts center, Hernandez said. “We need one important singer, someone who is popular with Ecuadorians,” he said.

Path To The American Dream

While Danbury’s Ecuadorians are making progress on many fronts there still several factors inhibiting their path to the American Dream and many low-income Latinos rely on the city’s social services.


The Census Bureau estimates there are at least 2,000 undocumented Ecuadorians in Connecticut with many likely to be part of the Danbury Hispanic community.


Danbury boasts the lowest unemployment rate for any Connecticut city, but many of the jobs available to immigrants are low paying and with the focus among immigrants on small businesses there is less upward mobility, Kushner said.

Moreover, the increase in Latino-owned businesses has not corresponded in recent year to the influx of new residents, according to Chamber of Commerce Director JoAnn Cueva.

Among the restraints are that the Latino newcomers tend to start small businesses such as mini-marts, salons, and restaurants, a niche that has been mostly filled by earlier arrivals.

Another challenge that is seen as “fracturing” efforts to assimilate Latinos is that some restaurants remain exclusively Spanish speaking. “They need to cater to everyone and be welcoming to everyone,” Cueva said. 

One positive, Cueva cited, is that for more than three years several new businesses have been launched on Main Street, which is in a state-aided opportunity zone. There also is more networking between ethnic communities, she said. 

Jamye Leon, Reina 2019-2020
(Photo: Ecuadorian Civic Center of Greater Danbury)
(Photo: Ecuadorian Civic Center of Greater Danbury)

At the same time the Ecuadorian community, particularly those who are immigrants, cling tightly to traditions such as the love of soccer and volleyball along with religious and cultural traditions, which often relate to regional customs in their homeland.

Moreover, Perez said that many Ecuadorian and Dominican families send their deceased to Ecuador for interment.

There is still segments of the community which look unkindly on immigrants, but much of this has dissipated, Kushner said, because the children of immigrants and the white population grew up together “they don’t see the differences,” she said.

As for the coming election, Kushner said, this should be an exciting time due to the diversity of the people running. “We will be able to show we can embrace different groups.”


Publisher’s Note: CTLN is committed to providing in-depth news and information on the 2020 U.S. Census in order to educate and empower all Connecticut communities.


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