Five years ago, the annual Puerto Rican Festival at Hubbard Park consisted of 350 people, a band and one hot dog cart. Now in its 47th year, the party – the oldest of its kind in the state – has ballooned in popularity, drawing more than 5,000 attendees this year, according to former Meriden Mayor Michael Rohde.
“It distinguishes Meriden, because no one else has anything like this,” Rohde said. “When I left office, I said I was going to stay with certain things I like, and this is one of them. It’s a very mellow, family-oriented event. You’ll see the whole spectrum here…grandparents and children, everyone just having a good time.”
Rohde joined a small festival committee five years ago that took the reigns from a group that was having trouble fundraising, he said. The committee is led by recently-retired Latino police officer Hector Cardona, Sr., a prominent figure in the local Latino community, organizing events like the annual Christmas-time Puerto Rican Holiday Parranda.
“We’ve become well known for putting on a good show here and it keeps getting bigger,” Cardona said. “The hardest part is doing the administrative stuff, like raising money, paying for insurance and permits.”
The fair is paid for with fees from food and vendor booths, helping with the $800 insurance tab and the costs for a police presence. Many vendors had to be turned away this year for lack of space, he said.
And a large part of the event’s success is due to the relatively large numbers of Puerto Ricans in Meriden and surrounding cities like New Britain.
According to US Census figures, Puerto Ricans make up about three-quarters of all Latinos in the state, comprising about 14 percent of the total population. Meriden is 28.9 percent Latino, with 13.6 percent of all businesses Latino-owned. By contrast, Latinos own 4.2 percent of businesses in the state. Neighboring New Britain is 37 percent Latino.
The biggest draws for the fair are its food and music. More than a dozen food stalls sold Cuajitos, Pinchos, Pasteles and Bacalaitos. A whole suckling pig was roasted by the amphitheater, where groups listened to salsa and danced. Now larger with more money to spend on entertainment, organizers were able to hire bands from New York and Puerto Rico and South America, including headliners Paquito Acosta y Su Orq., La Orchestra Sensacional and Hector y Su Mocion Tropical.
The fair, however, was almost not held due to local budget cuts, when recently-elected Portugese-born Mayor Manny Santos removed the line-item in the budget, a cut later restored by the City Council.
Santos told a reporter from the local newspaper the Record-Journal that he didn’t want there to be favoritism for funding local ethnic fairs.