East Hartford’s Latinos make up over nearly one-third of the town’s population of 52,000 residents. This, many might expect, would lead to producing easily identifiable Latino leadership and institutions along with more commensurate political influence. However, local leaders say, the town’s Latino community has not yet come of age.
With nearly 30 percent of the population, said Donald Carrey, a longtime resident who is the town’s Democratic chairman, Hispanics “can be and should be” a political force, but it remains difficult to find appropriate candidates.
The major exception is State Rep. Jason Rojas, who was born in East Hartford. He served on the school board and the town council before being elected to the state Legislature in 2009. Carrey sees Rojas as a key figure in the community.
Other East Hartford Latino political notables include council member Ram Aberasturia, who came from Cuba, and town committee member Gladys Rivera, a former Hartford resident who is best known as vice chairman of Hartford’s annual Puerto Rican parade.
Politically, the “sleeping giant” label currently in vogue to describe the potential influence of Hispanics nationally could apply to East Hartford, where according to a 2013 surname-based study conducted by the Connecticut Secretary of State, found that there were approximately 4,800 registered Hispanic voters, the seventh highest total in the state.
One of the factors in the lack of Latinos establishing themselves in East Hartford is that many of them are Hartford’s Latinos who have migrated east from the capital city and return there for family, religious, social and cultural connections. The town can be characterized as a suburban extension of Hartford’s larger and more established Latino community.
The Hartford-orientation is strong, even among the Latino families who have been in the area for one of more generations and have assimilated well, said Carrey, “Their extended family is still in Hartford,” he said.
The Latinos who have settled directly in East Hartford, are primarily Puerto Ricans, but increasingly more immigrants are from Central and South America, and local leaders say many of them still depend on help from the nonprofit agencies in the capital city that historically have welcomed and served Puerto Ricans and other Latino newcomers.
The Hartford Federation, an umbrella agency for Latino nonprofit agencies, currently has five members located in Hartford and all serve the greater Hartford area. These are the Hispanic Health Council, San Juan Center, Spanish American Merchants Association, Center for Latino Progress and the Latino Community Services.
While these agencies do serve many East Hartford residents. Rojas said there should be more systems in place in town to help Latinos rather than strictly relying on the Hartford nonprofits whose focus is on the urban core in Hartford.
“Poverty is increasing faster in the suburbs,” said Rojas, whose district also includes part of Manchester where the Latino population also has doubled since 2000 to about 7,000 residents, or 12 percent of the town’s population.
While slow to emerge as a political force, the growing Latino population whose median age is well below that of whites and blacks, has become highly visible in other areas of the community.
Rojas said the changing demographics can be seen in the school system where the growing Hispanic enrollment is being fed by a “good number of students from Hartford” as well as direct migration.
Minority students comprise the majority of enrollment throughout the system. This includes East Hartford High School, where Hispanics represented 42.8 percent of the total enrollment for 2013-14. Blacks comprised 35.3 percent, whites 16.3 percent and Asians 5.3 percent.
Overall, the public school system was working with 606 English Language Learners, or 8.5 percent with 223 having Spanish, not English, as the dominant language.
At the public library, the final stages of reconstruction have put programs, such as Hispanic Heritage Month, on hold. However, there is an awareness of the need to serve the minority population. The staff includes people who can speak Spanish, said Susan Hansen, the library’s director, and there is a children’s computer that is bilingual and books for youngsters in Spanish.
The library also plans to build an adult collection featuring popular titles translated into Spanish, Hansen said. There had been a collection of classical American literature in Spanish, she said. “These did not check out at all,” she noted.
East Hartford has two churches, one Pentecostal and the other nondenominational, that are devoted to Hispanics. Two of the town’s Catholic churches, St. Isaac Jogues and St. Rose, hold Spanish masses on Sundays.
A half-dozen Mexican-style restaurants have set up shop in town and there is at least one restaurant that specializes in Puerto Rican food and another that has a Peruvian menu.
However, what has not emerged is an organized structure, such as the one being developed by the hundreds of immigrants from Ghana who have moved into town, Carrey said. “This is not happening with the Latino community,” he said.
Consequently, when Carrey was looking for Hispanic candidates for November’s mayor, council and school board elections, the lack of local leadership and organization handicapped the traditional recruitment process. “We don’t have that one basic contact,” the town chairman said.
“We are trying to reflect the diversity of the town,” he said, noting that persons of color are well-represented, particularly in the school board candidates.
East Hartford historically has been a workplace city that has welcomed newcomers, said Jim Cardier, the town’s director of health and social services, who has been a East Hartford resident since the 1950s and for many years administered the regional Women, Infants and Nutrition program. “This is a place of beginning,” he said, “the faces and accents change.”
According to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of East Hartford’s 52,000 residents speak Spanish at home and of that group about a third speak English “less than very well.”
In addition to attracting a large Latino population, East Hartford also has seen a large influx of immigrants from the West Indies, Ghana and Asia, according to 2013 data. The largest group of foreign born Hispanics is from Peru, nearly 700, followed by El Salvador and Colombia.
The town’s cultural diversity and the needs of the Latino community, whose population has doubled since 2000, are being recognized and increasingly addressed at town hall, in the schools and by local churches who have added Spanish masses.
Cardier said four of his five health department employees are members of minority groups. If there is a need to speak Spanish, he said, the department has “built-in resources” and can utilize bilingual people from other divisions, such as WIC where five of the ten employees are bilingual and one-third of the 4,000 participants are Latinos.
Still, many Spanish-speaking families are “more comfortable” with services that offer cultural familiarity, are bilingual and have a track record,” explained Fernando Betancourt, executive director of San Juan Center in Hartford, a nonprofit that since 1957 has helped Latinos find jobs and housing. He said that based on zip-code analysis about 10 percent of the 1,200 people his agents serve per year are from East Hartford and Bloomfield.
The Hispanic Health Council covers 29 towns including East Hartford and Manchester, according to Joan Cruz, director of special projects. While Cruz did not have town-specific data, she said there was a sense that a lot of people in East Hartford were receiving services. These included women who have delivered babies at Hartford Hospital and participate in the Breast Feeding Heritage and Pride Program. Generally, Cruz said, that when participants move from Hartford, Hartford Health Care will try to follow them and continue services.
In addition, Cardier noted that HHC worked with the East Hartford health department during the signup for the Affordable Care Act.
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