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.