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.”
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.
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.”
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.