Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of reports on the numerous and diverse Latino sub-groups that make up the Hispanic population in Connecticut. By Wayne Jebian CTLatinoNews.com To most non-Mexicans, broad topics like immigration and food usually come to mind first, when you think of the growing Mexican population in the country and our state. However, like so many immigrants, who have come before them to the United States in search of a better life, Mexicans are one of many Hispanic sub-groups in the state, and have a broader unique immigrant history that provides insight into the determination and work ethic of Connecticut’s fastest growing group of Latinos. For many, a harrowing journey from their homeland is a constant memory. In a college English class recently, Francies Soto of Bristol, wrote about her family’s experience coming to Connecticut: “In 1987, at the age of two, I was brought to the United States from Mexico City by my mother. We arrived in Arizona on a plane with fake papers, and then were transported in a van from Arizona all the way to Connecticut, where the rest of my family was anxiously waiting for us.” Last year, CTLatinoNews reported (http:ctlatinonews.com/2013/05/30/lure-of-jobs-makes-mexicans-the-fastest-growing-latino-group-in-connecticut/) on why this immigrant group chose a state so far away from the U.S./Mexico border. The trek from Juarez to Waterbury for example is 2272.98 miles. Many said it was the lure of jobs and/or relatives or other relationships in the areas. For Soto and her family, the person who mentored her mother in how to be a ‘coyote’, (slang. a person who smuggles Mexican nationals across the border into the U.S. for a fee) was already established in Connecticut, so the family came here. Alfonso Martinez says only of his journey to the United States, “It was…not fun. ” Martinez, stopped first in Austin, Texas before moving on to Massachusetts and eventually settling in Hartford. He now owns a Mexican restaurant, Monte Alban, which has become a West End landmark. “I only spoke Spanish at first, and at that time, in the ’80s, it was a hard-time for Spanish speakers.” For 58 year old, Jesse Suarez of Wallingford, who CTLatinoNews.com wrote about last year, was 16 years old when he left Mexico to work in California’s vegetable fields. Soon, after moving to the United States, he was approached by a man from Argentina who offered him a job in Connecticut. Little did he know that the small New England state would have so much to offer him, namely a future. “I had never heard of Connecticut,” Suarez, now a U.S. citizen, admitted. “I had no idea where it was.” Once he arrived, he began working his way up through the ranks of a Southington-based furniture company as a maintenance man. His boss sent him to other stores around the country, training him on how to maintain their showrooms. After working for various distributors in the state, he bought Leon’s Liquors in New Britain in 2002. Once here, many settled in the larger cities. Now many aspiring Mexican families are fanning out from established enclaves in the state’s urban centers into the smaller ones. The Sotos moved from Waterbury to Bristol. “Now, in Bristol, they just opened a Spanish store, a Mexican Spanish store,” said Soto. “Before, you never ever would have seen that there. So that’s telling me that apparently, there’s more Hispanics or Mexicans within my town because I never used to see that before.”
Soto enjoys rattling off the parts of Connecticut that have become centers of the state’s growing Mexican community: “Bridgeport, Waterbury, Hartford, Meriden, Willimantic, New Haven,” she says. CTLatinoNews.com has reported that Mexicans had the single highest concentration in Willimantic, in the more rural Eastern part of the state.
Dr. Ricardo Pérez, a professor of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work at Eastern Connecticut State University, explained why Willamantic. “I had the chances to visit Mexican families here in Willimantic, and they were telling me that they started to arrive in the area in the early to mid 1980s,” he said, explaining that there was a strong demand for agricultural workers at the time. “The schools here are maybe 60% Latino, but we do not know the exact distribution of how many are Mexicans. We know from anecdotal evidence that many of the newer kids in the school system are of Mexican heritage.”
Pérez refers to these late 20th/early 21st Century arrivals to Connecticut as “pioneers”, saying that Mexican families coming to this state are less likely to have established extended families and connections than those moving to places like California and Texas, which used to be part of Mexico. Likewise, they have fewer Connecticut connections than do many Puerto Ricans who might choose to move here.
A restaurant like Martinez’s Monte Alban is typically the closest contact that non-Latinos have with Mexican culture. It is impossible not to notice how different and distinct traditional-style Mexican menu is from all other cuisines, including those of Spanish-Caribbean and South American restaurants. One need only look no further than “mole,” a sauce served on enchiladas and other entrees.
“Mmm…mole, definitely,” hums Francies Soto when asked to list traditional Mexican preparations. “Mole is seasonings all brought together. It’s like a paste. It’s dark…it has chocolate, but it doesn’t taste like chocolate. My grandma uses chocolate and almonds.”
The other way that Mexican eating and drinking establishments have worked to represent Mexican culture is through the music they play, which follows close on the heels of food in importance as a connection to the homeland that its people have brought with them to Connecticut. Soto says that the most popular genre is Cumbia.
“I suppose it’s like Salsa to Puerto Ricans,” she explained. “It’s a very fast-paced type of music – fast rhythm. Growing up, I remember while you were cleaning, or cooking, or whatever it was you were doing, that’s what we listened to. My uncle listened to a lot of Ranchera, or Norteñas, but in my home itself, it was just Cumbia. It was part of everything.”
Then, there is the increasingly popular Mexican-American music known as “Narcocorridos” which has grown from the gang and smuggling culture of the troubled border region. “There’s a lot of people that listen to narcocorridos,” said Soto. “As a matter of fact, at the age of 18, I moved to Meriden, and that’s when I became aware of Narcocorridos. My friends and I would go to certain places in Bridgeport and in Hartford, like bar/clubs, and they would be playing Narcocorridos.”
Indeed, the troubled border between Mexico and the United States, slicing away the territory seized in the Texan and Mexican-American Wars of the early/mid 1800s, remains the elephant in the room for Connecticut’s Mexican population, just like it is in other parts of North America. At a geographic distance from the troubled territory of the Narcocorridos, the most profound effect of the border is the broken families living on both sides.
Eric Maldonado, a professional kitchen remodeler and a part time college student, was born in Stamford to a mother who had come to the United States illegally. “She went back. She doesn’t like the life here,” he said. Coming from a family split by the border has never been easy, but like so many Mexican-Americans, it is a fact of life for him.
“I did have my mom for the first thirteen years of my life,” Maldonado said. “That was good. After that, it was hard when I needed to talk to someone. My dad, I never met him.”
Unanswered questions of the past are something that Eric Maldonado shares with his fellow Mexicans, given that ongoing politics between the United States and Mexico have done so much to fray the family roots of Mexican Americans living here. As a student, Eric keeps his focus on the future; like Martinez, whatever he learns, he puts back into his business and his craft.