For Latinos Meriden Has Reached The "Tipping Point"


Bill Sarno

After more than 60 years of migration from Puerto Rico and other Spanish-speaking countries, and an ongoing struggle to secure economic prosperity and to have its voice heard in local government, leaders within Meriden’s Hispanic population  say a tipping point has been reached.
“We have been the people outside the room; now we are in the room, making decisions for our people,” said Miguel Castro, a Puerto Rico-born Democrat who is the only Hispanic on the City Council. “We are involved as leaders in politics on the state and local level, as leaders in the business community and in education” Castro said.
About a third of the city’s 60,000 resident are Latinos and this population, which had mostly been Puerto Rican with some representation from Mexico and the Caribbean during the 20th century, now includes many newcomers from throughout Latin America and the Caribbean  islands.
What is happening in Meriden, Castro observes, is the rebranding of the city as a diverse community where opportunity exists for everyone. “As Latinos, we can become a tremendous force to drive this transformation process,” he said.
City leaders acknowledge that there has been a disconnect between officials and the Latino community and are focusing on changing that, said Paola Mantilla, an economic development associate for the city. “Latinos play a large role in the development and future of Meriden,” she said. “More and more you will see bilingual personnel and materials,” she said, noting that the city has a website, Meriden 2020, designed to inform people of everything that is happening.
For Pablo Soto, a Hispanic Republican leader on the state level and former Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives, Meriden was “slightly more prosperous” when he arrived 20 years ago, and, speaking as a Republican conservative, 30 years of Democratic rule in the city has resulted in a redevelopment effort that has “gotten nowhere.” However, he does share a sense that Latino influence and “voice” has increased. “There are definitely more Latinos in positions of influence than 60 years ago.”
In addition to Castro, who represents Area 1, the downtown sector of the city, there is a Latino state representative, Hilda Santiago, and others in position of power, Soto notes. However, Soto adds, “We need to do more, especially in other boards and commissions around the city and state.”
Meriden’s current mayor, Manuel Santos, a Republican born in Portugal, has stated he is not Hispanic, but some residents do acknowledge him as such because his homeland shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain. However, Santiago and Castro, who were both born in Puerto Rico and are Democrats, are generally recognized to be the most prominent Meriden Latinos in government.
In 1996, Santiago became the first Latina elected to the city council, following a trail blazed a generation earlier by Emilio Varano, who in 1959 running as a Republican became the first Puerto Rican elected to office in Connecticut. Other Latino political pioneers included Francisco Velez, who organized the city’s first Puerto Rican Festival 48 years ago, and Rafael Collazo, who in 1977 helped found the Casa Boricua de Meriden, a social service agency devoted to the city’s less affluent Hispanic residents.
When Santiago was elected to the state legislature in 2011, Castro was appointed to fill out her term. He won election in his own right by a significant margin in 2013.
Castro gives much of the credit for his success to Santiago and his wife, Katrina, a Cuban who he met in Florida and married 14 years ago.  Castro describes Santiago as a mentor who has coached and guided him throughout his political career. One important principle she has instilled in him, the councilman says, is that “to be effective at this level you need to rely on data and accurate information.”  Castro, who runs a construction firm, says his wife is “his best friend and business partner.” He adds, “She drives me to do what I do.”
A graduate of an Assemblies of God College with a degree in theology, Castro’s devotion to his religion comes through in almost any conversation. He also has been influenced by historic figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. One of his favorite sayings, which he says guides his public activism, is attributed to the Carthaginian general Hannibal who took elephants across the Alps to invade Italy: “I will either find a way or make a way.”
Castro cites with pride a growing list of Latinos who have found a way to play major roles in Meriden. “We have people who are business owners, eye doctors, surgeons, accountants, attorneys and professors at the local community college.” He notes that a lot of local Hispanic business owners have returned to the city where they grew up and want to be part of the process of advancing the city.
The city’s police department includes a “vast number” of Hispanic officers and detectives, Castro said. This includes two Latinos involved in neighborhood policing and a lieutenant who speaks fluent Spanish, he added. Still, one recent study found that the department is still more than 80 percent white and Hispanics amount to less than 10 percent of the force.
For many in Meriden, one of the most visible figures in the community over the last three decades has been a police officer, Hector Cardona Sr., who was born in Puerto Rico and is well-known for his signature curled mustache, directing the annual Puerto Rican Festival and the role his two sons play in the community.
Cardona retired from full-time police work last year, but continues to run the the annual Puerto Rican festival, which draws thousands to Hubbell Park in mid-August. One of his sons, Hector Jr., is a veteran police officer, and the other Miguel, is one of the city’s most respected educators.
Miguel Cardona grew up and attended school in the city, went to college and came back to help his community as a teacher. “He taught my kids,” Castro said. But for Cardona the classroom was only the first place where he would influence the education of the city’s children. He added a doctorate to his credentials, became an award-winning school principal at the age of 27 and is now the district’s performance evaluation specialist.
Meriden’s investment in education, which includes the current $220 million modernization of the two city high schools, is crucial to the future of the community, says Castro, who has a daughter attending middle school. “Fifty-two percent of the students in the public schools are Hispanic and we have more Hispanic teachers than we ever thought we would have,” he said. In addition, he notes three of the schools have principals are Puerto Rican and a Hispanic is is vice president of the board of education
A major ongoing challenge the schools face is bilingual education with an enrollment that includes more than 1,000 students that fall into the English Language Learner category. Castro said bilingual education programs, while mandated by the state, have been underfunded for the last ten years, and the local schools have had to be creative until the ESL laws change. “Meriden has taken bilingual education to a higher tier” under the leadership of Superintendent Mark Benigni and Fernando Tiago, the supervisor of bilingual education, Castro said.
The effort to educate and prepare Latinos and other Meriden residents for the 21st century economy has been moving forward on several other fronts in the community.  One of the best things that has happened in recent years in Meriden, say local leaders, was the establishment of a campus of Middlesex Community College at a downtown location within walking distance for many of its students.
For the spring semester, there are 201 Hispanic students taking classes in Meriden and they comprise 31.5 percent of the total enrollment and about two-thirds of the minority representation at that campus, according to figures provided by Tami Christopher, who directs the Meriden Center.
However, the future is uncertain for this campus. Faced with a grim  budget situation, the Middletown based college and the state board of regents had planned to end classes in Meriden after this term to save money.
Joined by Hispanic students, local leaders had protested the closing as hurting the community and making access to classes difficult for low-income students. While school officials began looking at alternatives such as shuttle buses to the Middletown campus, the city’s delegation to the state Legislature spearheaded an effort to forestall the campus closing. Last week, the board of regents announced that it would begin enrolling students for the fall term in Meriden, but the situation still is clouded by the uncertainty of what course the state budget will take.
Within  the business sector, “a lot of great things are happening,” said Rosanne Ford, vice president of membership services for the Midstate Chamber of Commerce which is based in downtown Meriden. Since 2006, the chamber has been working with Hispanic individuals and businesses through an organization called Hispanic Outreach Leaders in Action.
Among the objectives of HOLA, whose chairwoman is Lydia Heredia, are to encourage participation in the chamber and community, to grow leadership from the Hispanic community and to provide “excellent Hispanic role models” for youths. HOLA also raises money through activities such as the upcoming Cinco de Mayor party to provide scholarships for Hispanic students.
Helping small businesses, especially those operated by Latinos, is part of the city’s economic redevelopment goals for 2020, Mantilla said. “We are providing a free curriculum in Spanish to help them grow,” she said. “Also, we focus on providing public forums and translate everything we do to allow our Latino community to play a part in our future goal,” she added.
In terms of addressing the needs of low income Latinos, Castro quotes Nelson Mandela. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice,” the South African leader said.  In Meriden, much of the help poorer Latinos receives comes through the Casa Boricua de Meriden which since 1978 has been “the first and only agency” providing numerous social services to the Hispanic population, reports its director, Martha Colaresi.
Located in an aging building on Colony Street, the Casa’s programs have evolved to reflect the changing local economy. It still remains a place where people can receive educational and employment help, as well as play dominos, Colaresi said. However, there now is a computer lab and, for example, a Puerto Rican migrant who had never used email recently was taught how to go online to gain his OSHA qualification for a job at a nearby quarry, Colaresi said.
The city now has about 2,000 recent immigrants and every Thursday night a couple hundred of them will gather at St. Rose of Lima Church, Castro said. There they will meet local lawyers, doctors and police officers, Castro says, and take comfort in “seeing people like themselves.”
Meriden has a long history of assimilating immigrant populations who often have come to the city seeking employment in factories and, in some cases, on nearby farms.   The first Puerto Rican family came to Meriden in the 1920s, attracted by work at the New Departure ball bearings plant, Colaresi said. She said her French Canadian family also came to the city at that time, joining an immigrant population that included Irish, Germans, Poles and Italians that found employment in a variety of factories, including International Silver.
The movement of Hispanics to Meriden and other Connecticut cities picked up in the 1950s and 1960s and has continued steadily into present time. The initial influx was primarily from Puerto Rico, often from the Aguada area in the western cane-growing part of the island, but recently the Latino population has become more diverse.  By the latter part of the 20th century Meriden, like many New England urban centers, had lost a once vibrant and job-rich manufacturing sector, but still retained and continued to attract large Hispanic and African-American  populations who manifested the maladies that come from economic and social dislocation and isolation.
One of the most visible signs of Meriden’s urban decay was downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods, which historically housed the largest concentration of Hispanics in the city. Most of this area falls into council district Area 1, which Castro has represented since 2011.  While efforts to revive the downtown area were mitigated by the emergence of a major mall and medical center at the north side of town, the biggest stumbling block, Castro said, was a flooding problem, which he calls the “elephant in the room.”
As a member of the city’s Flood Control Implementation Agency, Castro said, “we were resolved to eliminate the elephant.”
Flood control is a key component of a $100 million downtown revitalization project which is being coupled with the building of a $20 million transit center as part of the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail program. A goal is to make the city’s center a point of origin rather than a destination according to Meriden 2020. The downtown project will include 500 units of new mixed-income housing. Castro said that it is important that the project will encompass 140 low-income families. “We need to give our people an opportunity to move forward, to dream bigger,” he said.
As for empowering the Latino community, Castro admits that more people have to become involved and especially to vote. He also notes that issues, such as poverty, are not exclusive to the Latino community and adds, “we are friends with everyone” in terms of advocating for better education and economic opportunity, for better housing for senior citizens and for social justice.
Moreover, Castro says that issues such as immigration and social justice should not be politicized. Echoing Dr. Martin Luther King, he says, “Our agenda should not be political; our agenda should be of the heart and of the people.”