In the not-too-distant future, when the late-20th century is but a dim memory, the public’s understanding of the formative decades of Hartford’s Latino community may be largely shaped by the work of one man, Juan M. Fuentes Vizcarrondo,
Fuentes, who passed away Wednesday, used a camera to document nearly every important news, social and artistic event in Hartford’s Hispanic community for more than 40 years. Although he said he never thought about his photos’ artistic quality, his work won several awards from arts organizations and was featured in exhibits, most notably the 100-picture solo show “Portraits of a Community: The Puerto Ricans of Hartford,” at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in 1993.
Born in 1932 in Humacao, P.R., Fuentes was 31 in 1963 when he came to Hartford, following a brief stay in New York City. “I had a Kodak one-shot point-and-shoot camera, but then I started reading, and the best teacher is a book,” he told CTLatinoNews.com in 2012.
He began to chronicle the lives of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in the city in 1967, when he started writing a weekly column, in Spanish, for the Hartford Times, the city’s afternoon newspaper. The column needed photos, so he built a darkroom in his Dutch Point apartment and began capturing his community on film in a period that included riots in 1968 and increasing activism. Over the next four decades his work would appear in virtually every newspaper published in the city.
At the first Park Street Festival, held in 1978, he photographed trumpeter Ray González in an iconic profile, on-stage and poised to issue a clarion call for the celebration to begin. The latter photo is displayed in the walkway between the State Capitol and the Legislative Office Building.
Diane Alverio, publisher of CTLatinoNews.com, first met Fuentes when she was a college student. “Juan was a friend, an artist and we are so blessed that through his camera he chronicled the history of Latinos in Connecticut for decades. That is a legacy that will become part of the fabric of our state.”
Fuentes was not simply an observer who sat on the sidelines and snapped photos. He was an active champion of his people, Puerto Ricans and other members of the state’s growing and increasingly diverse population of Spanish speakers.
State Rep. Edwin Vargas said, “I remember when I arrived in Hartford in 1972,” as one of a group of teachers who had come from Puerto Rico to provide bilingual education. “He was one of the first people to come and welcome us to Hartford. He opened his house to us. He was a very welcoming individual. He wanted to see us succeed and help the children.”
Fuentes published the state’s first Spanish-language newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica, from 1972 to 1975. He went on to establish the bilingual community newspaper El Observador, featuring photographs and positive news stories for Spanish and English speakers in the Hartford area, which he published from 1976 to 1982.
Rep. Vargas recalled, “he had his idiosyncrasies; he didn’t like the word Latino. I used to say, ‘Juan, I think that’s an uphill battle.'”
He added, “Juan was a good friend. If he was a friend, he was with you through thick and thin. He didn’t have much material wealth, but he would give you the shirt off his back.”
Sylvia Vargas, a retired schoolteacher and Rep. Vargas’ wife, described Fuentes as “a very dynamic man, a very talented man. I knew him as a stage actor, as a poet, as a musician, and I think he put some of his poetry to music.” She recalled being photographed by Fuentes when she was queen of the Puerto Rican Day Parade in 1969, an event he helped organize for many years.
“His character was such that he was blunt as can be. He was one aspect, ‘what you see is what you get,'” Sylvia Vargas said. “He had passion for art, passion for living.”
When interviewed by CTLatinoNews.comin 2012, Fuentes was retired from his decades as a photojournalist and community historian, spending most of his time in the longtime home he shared with his wife Lucy in Hartford’s Blue Hills neighborhood. He was going through boxes that contained large framed prints of his black and white photographs, deciding which to include in a planned book. He was also interested in finding a place and a means to archive his photographs and preserve them for future generations.
Among the subjects of Fuentes’ many images are: the 1972 visit of Marisol Malaret, the first Puerto Rican Miss Universe; the first San Juan Festival in 1978, where the great Tito Puente performed; the swearing-in of Juan Figueroa as the first Puerto Rican state representative; the Los Macheteros trials in 1985; and hundreds of baptisms and weddings at Immaculate Conception and other Park Street churches.
There were many portraits amongst his works, as well as ordinary, if not everyday, events.
“Child walking outside window on ledge,” a photo taken on Park Street in 1977, is of a young boy walking between windows on a second-story ledge above a pharmacy sign. That the photographer was witnessing that was simply a case of serendipity. “He was going from here to here, and I was there,” Fuentes said.
Some shots were historic but not spontaneous, such as one of the late Gov. Ella T. Grasso with city leaders including María Sánchez and Hernán LaFontaine, on the occasion of the governor’s issuing a proclamation recognizing the Puerto Rico Parade.
Ana Alfaro, a long time community volunteer, knew Fuentes for about 25 years and recalled the effort he would put into getting everybody in just the right pose on such occasions. “I always remember Juan being very active and very passionate and moving people around to capture the perfect photo. He was such a character about it,” she said.
On the other hand, Fuentes would sometimes surprise her with photos she didn’t even know he was taking. “There was always kind of a mystery and surprise about his photos,” she said.
“All of the photos are so unique, reflecting the community as it was, and even a few years ago, as he continued to take photos,” she said.
Fuentes told the curator of of one exhibit, “the only way we can show how we were is by photographs. Hay videos nena, pero once you freeze a moment with your camera, no matter what you do to the photograph, the moment is frozen por eternidad, for future generations.”
In choosing subjects, he said, “I don’t look for beauty in mountains; I look for beauty in people. Our people, some of them, are very photogenic.”
Still, his intent was more journalistic than aesthetic. As for the artistic aspect of his photos, “that never was on my mind,” Fuentes said. “I take pictures. You have to have light to take pictures.”
His work was widely displayed locally, as well as nationally and in Puerto Rico. He won several professional division awards from the National Arts Program at Hartford for photos. His first major exhibition, “Images from Two Worlds,” was presented at the new Hartford Civic Center in 1975, and later repeated at other venues around the city and state.
The photographer was also a writer and poet. In 2009, Hartford’s Studio @ Billings Forge presented “Entre Palabras,” which included a small exhibit of Fuentes’ photographs and a reading from his book of poems “Sueños e Ilusiones.”
Fuentes was recognized by area publications and received numerous awards and official citations for theater performance and community service, including the Roberto Clemente Humanitarian Award in 1976; the declaration of Oct. 16, 1993, as Juan Fuentes Day in the City of Hartford; the Spanish American Merchants Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003; the Hispanic Professional Network’s Cultural Award in 2001 and its Award for Excellence in Media in 2005. He was also the grand marshal of the Connecticut Puerto Rican Parade in 1995 and co-grand marshal of the West Indian Parade in 2002.
In an “artist’s statement,” prepared for one of many exhibitions of his photos, Fuentes said, “For over 40 years I have tried to capture the beauty and strength of the Puerto Rican experience in Hartford and Connecticut, in high-contrast black and white, as my people live and grow, work and play, age and die here in cold New England. I want people who see my work to learn about us as individuals not as stereotypes. I wanted to overcome the ignorance and racism about Puerto Ricans that existed then and still exists.
“However, when my people see my work, they are moved as well. They see their history, where they came from, their mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and grandparents, the places where they lived, worked and played.
“When an image is captured in a photograph, it remains forever. I would like to be able to preserve the work I have done and make it available for the public to view and study and learn from, now and in the future, when the medium may become history as well. I also want to record the other Hispanic groups that made our community what it is today before they are forgotten through assimilation and the growth of newer immigrant groups. There is still much history to ‘write with light’ in Hartford’s Hispanic community,” he said.