Willimantic is about 30 miles by car from Hartford, but for its growing Latino community the distance between two of the state’s most Hispanic cities seems greater due to transportation woes and a sense of being forgotten, according to James Flores, the lone Latino member of the Town Council.
“Nobody knows we are here,” said Flores, who has championed Latino causes locally during much of his 40 years in eastern Connecticut town and wants to have Willimantic’s concerns more widely recognized and addressed. “We want people to know we are here and that we need help,” he said.
Officially an urban village within the town of Windham, Willimantic has struggled economically since its massive thread factory closed 30 years ago and many of the other jobs that had lured Puerto Ricans and others to the area dried up. As a city, it is second only to Hartford in the percentage of residents of Latino descent, respectively 41 and 32 percent according to a 2013 Zip Code analysis and several points higher in recent Census reports. Willimantic also has one of the largest concentrations of Mexicans in the state among its approximately 18,000 residents.
Flores, dubbed Mr. Transportation locally, emphasizes that his No. 1 priority remains giving residents greater access to employment
centers such as Hartford. “Transportation and employment are connected,” he stresses.
Also at the top of the Flores agenda is improved bilingual education and the hiring of more minority teachers. A substitute teacher for 25 years, he said that members of minority groups comprise about 72 percent of the public school population. About two-thirds of this group is Latinos and almost evenly split between Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. “We have a lot of young people,” he said.
Willimantic’s median age, as well as median income, are significantly lower than the state overall and Hispanic residents are less likely to go to the polls.
“People don’t register to vote,” said Flores, who is in his third term on the governing body, once appointed and twice elected. A key element, he said, is that the population tends to be transitional, moving back and forth to Puerto Rico and Mexico or leaving town when they get decent-paying jobs. Flores said he helped register 300 people during one campaign for council and four years later when it came time to vote again many were gone.
Crime is a concern, Flores said, although the rate has dropped significantly since the era when the town was depicted in 2003 on national television as “Heroin Town,” an image that Flores and other local leaders say was undeserved. Flores credits the improvement on the appointment of Lisa Maruzo-Bolduc as police chief 12 years ago.
While Flores is the only Hispanic on the council, the distinction of being the first on the local governing body goes to Yolanda Negron, who was elected in 1991 to the Board of Selectman, which was the form of government until a few years ago.
Although Negron is not as publicly active now as in the past, she still is highly respected and influential in the Latino community. “She is the role model for people like me,” Flores said. He regularly confers with Negron on various local concerns. “She is a good consultant,” he said.
Flores is very good in his community, said state Rep. Susan Johnson. The Willimantic Democrat added that she and the council member are both “working toward creating a friendly nice community for everybody.”
Willimantic saw its Hispanic population top 7,000 in the 2010 Census, an increase of 48 percent in ten years and is still growing. The population of Windham is approximately 27,000 but fluctuates as students move in and out from Eastern Connecticut State University, which is in the town, and from the University of Connecticut in Storrs which is about 15 miles up the road. Hispanics comprise about 6 percent of the population of the three more rural sections that lie outside Willimantic.
Although unemployment in Windham – the state does not break out Willimantic figures – dropped more than 25 percent during 2014, and was at 7.3 percent by year’s end, it remains a nearly a point above the state average.
Many of the city’s Puerto Ricans came to work in the thread industry, but even with that mill and the mushroom factory gone, they arrive because their families are here, Johnson explained. Mexicans were attracted to the work that once was plentiful on mushroom farms and the Lebanon nurseries, Flores said. He added that the Puerto Ricans tend to be second generation residents while the Mexicans often are first generation.
Even with the influx of Spanish-speaking families, Willimantic remains the state’s smallest urban area and is the regional hub for a rural area with a relatively small population compared to Hartford or New Haven, Johnson said.
Both Flores and Johnson expressed dissatisfaction with the bilingual education which essentially has been eliminated in the local schools, the councilman said.
Part of the problem , said the state representative, relates to the No Child Left Behind Law under which the state limited language accommodation to 30 months, although the federal strictures said “as long as necessary.” Johnson said that the Windham schools are essentially “in compliance (with the state), but not providing (bilingual language services) to the extent that is needed.” For example, she said, the focus is on what is needed for conversation but does not help students deal with concepts such as democracy.
Flores said that Spanish-speaking children who come to the United States while in the lower grades tend to be assimilated. Those who enter the local system at the junior and senior high level “feel left out” and become dropouts. Those Latino students who make it through high school and get to college tend to not return to Willimantic, Flores said.
A large part of the local workforce is unskilled, Johnson said, adding that many Willimantic residents work at the casinos. Flores said that some Hispanics from Willimantic work as custodians and in the food services at UConn and Eastern Connecticut State. These schools, along with the casinos, can be reached by bus.
The transportation to the casinos runs 24 hours a day, Flores said, which allows Willimantic residents to work third shift. This is not an option for jobs in Hartford where the last bus from Hartford to Willimantic departs at 5:26 p.m. and there is no service on weekends. Peter Pan operates its Willimantic/Coventry Express, according to the schedule provided by the state Department of Transportation, with four stops in Willimantic, starting at 5:45 a.m. There are four runs with the last to the city beginning at 7:10 a.m. Return trips start at 2:12 p.m.
The Windham Regional Transit District, which essentially serves the town along with Mansfield and Storrs runs Monday through Saturday. The District also has a Route 32 service to Foxwoods and Norwich which operates 365 days a year.
Both Johnson and Flores take issue with some of the media coverage of Willimantic has received. They say the city was treated unfairly in the Hartford Courant 13 years ago in a series called “Heroin Town,” which featured page one articles with headlines such as “Small town, big heroin use” and described the city as a regional supermarket for drugs. The town’s image took a further beating when “60 Minutes II” sent Dan Rather to Willimantic to report on the drug and prostitution described in the Courant.
Johnson said the “drug town” tag was misplaced and charged that the series was produced for a writing competition, a view that Johnson shares. “Our drug situation is no different than any other place” and, more importantly, addiction should be treated as a mental health issue, she said.
Flores said the drug and prostitution situation was blown out of proportion and was essentially “propoganda.” He said the No. 1 place for prostitution is Hollywood and that the people buying drugs in Willimantic are often from other towns. “Go to Woodstock or Lebanon,” he said, “and there also is a lot of drug consumption.”
Flores did cite crime as one of the city’s problems, but said it mostly consisted of robberies and shoplifting and murders were rare. He said a factor was that Willimantic has more halfway houses per capita than other communities, many of which fought vigorously to keep out these facilities. The problem in Willimantic, he said, is the residents of the halfway houses need jobs and better access to transportation.
Statistically, the state’s crime index shows that the crime rate has dropped well below the national average in recent years. The state’s Crime in Connecticut report for 2013 lists Willimantic has having tallied 116 drug arrests and the overall crime rate was in the same neighborhood as that for towns such as Norwalk, Bristol, Cromwell and West Hartford.