Juan Fuentes: the Latino Community's Photographer for 45 Years

Juan Fuentes reading a newspaper at La Paloma Sabanera, a coffee shop-restaurant on Capitol Avenue ©2012 Pablo Delano

By Doug Maine
Juan M. Fuentes Vizcarrondo and his camera have borne witness to nearly every important news, social, and artistic event in Hartford’s Latino community for more than 40 years.
Now 80, his efforts to chronicle the lives of Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics in the city began in 1967, when he had an opportunity to write 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 apartment in Dutch Point and began capturing his community on film in a period that included riots in 1968 and increasing activism. Over the intervening years he figures he has had his work published in virtually every newspaper published in the city.
In choosing subjects, he said, “this building is here today; tomorrow it might not be there. But I don’t look for beauty in mountains; I look for beauty in people. Our people, some of them, are very photogenic.”

Puerto Rican Beauty & Strength

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.

Chronicler of History

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.
As he pulled out a photo of Mildred Torres outside her campaign headquarters in 1979, Fuentes recalled one episode in Puerto Ricans’ long struggle for political representation in city government. ” María Sánchez was the person that had the political power in the Puerto Rican community. I spoke to (then-deputy mayor and power broker) Nick Carbone. When they had an opening on the Hartford City Council, they tried to evade their responsibility (by not putting a Puerto Rican in the seat), and María got in their face and they chose Mildred Torres as the first Puerto Rican council person.”
In the next election, Tony González challenged Torres in a primary. “What happened was that Tony beat her because he was under the wing of (then-mayor) George Athanson. But she was the first appointed and Tony was the first elected.”

Trumpeter Ray González, 1978

From the first Park Street Festival, held in 1978, he captured for eternity a sea of smiling faces, the crowd in front of a bandstand set up on the street. From the same stage, he photographed trumpeter Ray González in an iconic profile, 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, Fuentes said.

Self Taught

Before leaving Puerto Rico, when he was in his first marriage, “my in-laws at that time had a place where they developed film for pharmacies and places like that, so I would go and watch,” he said.
“I’m self-taught and I know everybody likes to have pictures, but I knew that Puerto Ricans didn’t have the kind of money for that,” he said.
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.  He was unhappy with his job and “I had a Kodak one-shot point-and-shoot camera, but then I started reading, and the best teacher is a book,” he said.
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.” Fuentes doesn’t have undeveloped rolls of film sitting around in his house; he developed all of the photographs he took. “If you don’t develop it immediately, the film may spoil,” he said.
He was involved in every step of the process, from loading the film to matting and framing the finished photos. “I shot it, I printed it,” he said. “I don’t let anybody touch my images because you never know.”

Maria Sanchez

Unfortunately, in this digital era it has become too easy for people to copy photos and distribute them to others without compensating, or even identifying, the photographer. “People don’t understand the meaning of copyright,” said Fuentes, who is now careful to sign his prints in order to legally protect himself.

Writer and a Poet

The photographer is 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.” Never intending for them to be published, he had sent the poems to his cousins in Puerto Rico and they were quickly convinced that they should be collected in a book.
Fuentes has also been recognized by area publications and has 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.

For Future Generations

As things change, he believes,  “The only way we can show how we were is by photographs. Hay videos ‘nene’, 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.”
At 80, Fuentes is retired from his decades as a photojournalist and community historian, spending most of his time in the longtime home he shares with his wife Lucy in Hartford’s Blue Hills neighborhood. When he has the energy, he looks through the boxes that contain large framed prints of his black and white photographs, deciding which to include in a planned book.
He has spoken with his daughters about taking care of the photos when he is no longer able to do so, though he is also interested in finding a place and a means to archive the photographs and preserve them for future generations.


11 thoughts on “Juan Fuentes: the Latino Community's Photographer for 45 Years

  1. Juan Fuentes and his photos are the truth of Puerto Ricans coming out to the world though his camara! Gracias Juan por captar nuestra realidad asi nadie la puede negar. Besos hermano…….

  2. Super article dedicated to a super human being and dear friend! Juancito, ¡gracias mil por tus innumerables contribuciones! ¡Gracias CT latino news!

  3. Congratulations to Doug Maine and CTLatinoNews.com.for a well written arcticle about “The Man and His Camera”.
    Juan is the remarkable individual I met when I arrived in Hartford in 1976. Camera bag always on his shoulder, camera always poised to capture in time another “moment”. He has never stopped. Bendicion, Juan. Que Dios te bendiga !

  4. Love Juan and Lucy. They remind me of my parents and their struggles then and now. Always willing to share their memories, wisdom and an ear. Will be first in line to purchase his book. Thank you Doug for taking the time to write and remind of us a PR/Hartford living legend.

  5. Juan Fuentes and Lucy are more than a couple and certainly Juan more than a photographer or a journalist. He is more of a humanist. When I arrived in Hartofrd in 1972, Juan took us under his wing until we left in 1978. Joito, Joita, and Ana stayed in the Fuentes’ home in Blue Hills. I rememebr Teresa and Barbara. The alst tiem I visited was during the funeral services for Maria Sanchez. I love both Juan and Lucy as my brthers. Hope to see you all in heaven some day. Girls you have a great family, in my home town of Cayey it is siad “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”. In the eyes of my heart and soul that is what Juan represents for the Puerto Rican community in Hartford. I am sure that Juan Brito and Jerry Zayas will attest to that. Feliz Navidad familia!!
    Al periodico gracias por tan bonito reportaje.

    1. I was reflecting on Juan, and what did for Hartford and for the Latino population in Connecticut. He was an ageent of change that usedd “La Prensa Grafica” and “El Observador” to transform the perception of the majority society, government and private citizens about Puerto Ricans and Latinos, that resulted in significant change and enpowerment for this group, and served as a light in the hard road to equality. He is the is “tip of the spear” for the Latino growth in Connecticut, and the standard to mneeey for those of us have dedicated our life to achieve the well being of our people. I am so proud of Juan Fuentess the “multiplier”, the ebst of our community, the shining light of truth in a darkened night of prejudice.

  6. Today we mourn the lost of this fine man, a community photo journalist… a man I considered Godfather of the Puerto Rican community (Padrino de nuestra comunidad Puertorriqueña), a man I have a great respect for. Juan you may have left this world…but your legacy will remain alive in the heart of many and in the heart of this great city. Rest in Eternal Peace Juan Fuentes Vizcarrondao 1932 – 2015.

  7. Conocí a Juan al poco tiempo que llegué de Chile en 1974. Durante mi trabajo con la comunidada latina en la Casa de Puerto Rico investigando la situación de los Latinos en Educación y Vivienda y publicando tres informes, Jaun era una presencia contante. En los eventos, demostraciones, en las inauguraciones de casas contruidas por Taíno, y otras organizaciones, su cámara iba creando un archivo de las luchas y victorias de nuestra comunidad. Juan estaba planeando compilar y publicar sus fotos. En qué va a quedar ese plan?

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