Willimantic Latinos: Everyone Forgets About Us

 willimantic map  
Bill Sarno

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

James Flores is the only Latino member of the Willimantic town council.
James Flores is the only Latino member of the Willimantic town council.

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.


15 thoughts on “Willimantic Latinos: Everyone Forgets About Us

  1. Hi, Bill!
    Can we do a story together on Windham Technical High School and their efforts to produce graduates who are skilled? The partnership with Electric Boat that complements the many programs including welding at the various schools under the CT Technical High School umbrella including Grasso Tech and Norwich Tech. We have quite a few Latino students excelling in their trade programs and academically – representing the nation at SkillsUSA competitions – that are able to talk to the media in addition to Dr. Nivea L. Torres, superintendent of the technical schools. Many thanks!

  2. I will like to thank CTLatinoNews.com for this article specially Mr Bill Sarno and Diana Alverio. Thank once more time and good luck in the future,

  3. and lots of good things are happening…more kids graduating from high school and college…more bi-lingual/bi-cultural staff everywhere…when I arrived in 1979…it was not like that…more parents work (of course they need better paying jobs!)…and when I was in the Board of Education, no one of the opposing party spoke to me…but when Manny Diaz was a Board of Education member for years, things were different…and let’s not forget Luis Diaz in politics also…or the Alers as super teachers; and the Tirados as teachers and artist…and now Elsa Nunez as our Eastern CT State Univ. President…and Imna Arroyo as an art professor at Eastern…oh what about dr. Ricardo Perez as our distinguished anthropology professor at Eastern also, and Sister Jude defending the rights of our brothers/sisters who are undocumented…and so many positive, knowledgeable, kind, dedicated Latinos like James and Yolanda who live here…so…I say Latinos in Windham are the best of the best!

  4. I agree with with Mr. Flores’s concern that providing access to employment opportunities is key. If residents do not have (access) to viable transportation, it creates a greater barrier to the social determinants of health (income & income distribution, education, unemployment & job safety, employment & job security,housing, food security, gender, race, health services).

  5. Intense, English submersion is needed for English mastery not a piecemeal bi-lingual program that allows unprepared children to eek by because of their Spanish proficiency, with the inability to express their true intelligence to the greater community in English. Their knowledge of Spanish is a lovely thing but like it or not, even in 100 years, the exclusively Spanish-speaking population of America will not outnumber the English speaking. Those that refuse to adapt will struggle and pass down that struggle and sense of isolation, to their family’s next generation.
    The focus must be on English fluency not simply operational knowledge of the language. It doesn’t matter how highly intelligent an individual is if they are unable to communicate their intelligence in a sophisticated way, to 80% of The US population. They will remain isolated in an increasingly smaller community, limited to elected leadership roles with only a very small portion of The US population: Let’s not be romantic about it, they should be fluent in English before graduating high school.
    There is also the factor of the unfairness of such language preference on a local and national level; what about the scores of immigrants that spoke Farsi, Afrikaans, Italian, Chinese, one of the hundreds of languages and dialects of The World? Why are such lowered expectations placed on Spanish-speaking populations and is such patronizing internalized? Every, other ethnic cohort has had to learn the language our Constitution was written in out of fairness and true equality. There should be no preferences drawn here.
    Latino ethnic supremacists are determined to divide our community because it is politically convenient for them but what about its toll on the mental health of our children? Latino parents in Willimantic are checking out, told that simple pride in ethnic identity is enough, that as long as groups within our community maintain their pride, our schools and social welfare systems will take care of the rest.
    What has resulted is a large portion of the population of Willimantic children being raised at school, teachers trying to teach these children impulse control, social manners and civic responsibility, The English Language and all, other usual subjects on top of it, with parents unable to help with homework — academic classwork AND parental guidance — because their pride is in the way.
    The problem with Willimantic’s schools is not the quality of teachers, the availability of cultural outreach and Latino appreciation, nor even the facilities.
    The problem is a population of children existing in a chaotic, “Lord of The Flies” hierarchy where unruly children rule, their parents demand they be free to do so for reasons of personal and cultural pride (yet the high concentration of troubled adults in Willimantic, as urban areas like this town have the services that draw those in need from all of Eastern Connecticut, means dealing with both the parents’ problems as well as their children’s), thus infringing upon the rights of other children who have been taught impulse control, manners and concepts of civic duty (not just political, electoral duty, as Willimantic’s Democrats are so eager to focus on but a greater sense of duty to community and neighbors) by their parents, who wish to learn.
    It’s not the fault of these children; they need parental oversight and care but the problems of this community — drug problems that lead to routine, criminal activity, as any resources means being closer to the next hit, fraud, violence — are the roadblock to many drifting, Latino children in Willimantic, thriving and happily co-exisiting with those of the same heritage as their families and those who are not.
    Or we could keep pushing the ethnic pride and supremacy, entitlement complex, to the extreme and wait until packs of 12 year-olds actually do throw homeless people over the bridge, destroy our gardens with more than spray-painted, homophobic slurs and perpetuate gas station robbery and copper theft rings, into the next generation.
    Do we actually care about the well-being of these children and the thriving of Willimantic or is it more important we don’t bruise the all-important “Latino pride” of their parents and bad actors in our troubled community?

    1. I wanted to amend this comment because I think the tone I meant wasn’t properly communicated: I do understand how hard it is for people (adults, in particular) to learn a new language and I have long thought the cultural impact of Latinos on Willimantic has made us special and unique in this region of the country.
      I personally have no special gift for learning languages and have tried many, including Spanish (the only one that really took, probably due to the advantage I’ve had growing up around those fluent in the language.) I know it’s hard but I think it’s so important to develop the strongest English language skills possible in kids with little exposure to it at home, to expand opportunity and their ability to engage fully in US society. That includes the opportunity to win wide support for leadership roles and other opportunities for the management of power.
      My worry was about a spiral of comfortable complacency in our community and the problems that would grow worse, as a result.
      However, some good things have been happening in Willimantic with developing parental involvement and relationships between community advocates and those Latino residents who feel they have difficulty connecting with the system and getting their kids what they need. Some of the problems we were recently dealing with do seem to be getting better.

  6. The Alers and Tirados are and have been so vital to our community. Wonderful families; lovely people. They’re just wonderful.

  7. Some positive programs that should be expanded and encouraged:
    – Soccer programs have grown substantially in this town and we can actually develop a competitive niche for this, if we direct the right resources toward these programs.
    – Dancing troops, folk dancing and competitive cheering should be grown. Buildings not in use near housing projects should be opened as studios, temporary or permanent, for kids to meet at after school and in the evenings.
    – Our boxing clubs are a great outlet for young people and we should grow those to the competitive level, as well.
    – Eastern should find a way to be in possession of the Cinema property, near The Green across from The Frog Bridge and use the space to show locally made documentaries. If the old lumber storage site behind it could be turned into studios, even better.

  8. James Flores attacked parent Al Korczynski at a Windham Board of Education meeting on March 11, for daring to say we should not be racists and ethnic supremacists when searching for teachers to hire for our struggling school system — a system that has all but collapsed under care of Windham Democrats — but should look for the best most qualified to offer the results we need.
    Flores went on to attack this man’s First Ammendment rights, joining other Windham Democrats in stating that this member’s personal opinion should be filtered through THEM first and made to reflect the majority opinion of the board.
    Imagine, if you will, if a White Republican majority on board denigrated a Latino Democrat minority complaining about their obsession with hiring White teachers, to ethnically represent them in town. This Latino minority was verbally attacked for having a politely expressed opinion and told he may only speak, when the White Republicans have processed his opinion and told him what he is ALLOWED to say?!
    This is unacceptable and Windham residents will politically fight back against such abuses by this board and by Mr. Flores. Do you actually care about children in our community succeeding or are you more concerned with abusing your power and insulting the only true minority on your board? Do you want to be associated with ethnic and racial supremacy, Flores because that Fascism is exactly what you are becoming known for and getting press for.
    Windham Democrats, you had my vote before but you will not get it next time and I will work tirelessly to persuade every Willimantic voter to reconsider theirs.

  9. …and as far as education on “tone” goes, as someone who has studied “hard science” as well as social work and public Health, has worked and volunteered in a wide range of social assistance, counseling and Public health programs; yes, let’s have a conversation about relevant research — what’s been officially discredited by peer review after a period and what has not — and what is empirical hearsay.
    I’ll contact my friends who performed the actual studies and we’ll clear up some of Flores’ misunderstandings about how these studies actually work and how findings should be interpreted.
    What controlled studies have you performed and what academic track did you take in school, Mr. Flores?

  10. CT Taxpayer
    I am James Flores I am not afraid to stand for what I believe. I used my name every time I write a article. Only cowards and people with out argument refuse to identify themselves. If you want people to take you seriously uh you should use you real name.

  11. That’s right; when you speak as a representative, you don’t know who hears you. Assume everyone does.
    You are supposed to speak for the “voiceless” and the “faceless” taxpayer. You work for all of us. You have chosen to be a representative; not me. Fixating on your prejudices, fixating on ethnicity and names, will only hinder your ability to be an unbiased, productive and even exceptional leader to The Windham/Willimantic community.
    It would behoove you to listen to respectful criticism, regardless of who it comes from. It’s a gift in disguise.

  12. Dear : CT Taxpayer .
    First and foremost, thanks for reading this article. The point of views from people like you is very important plus appreciate by people that are working hard to make this page possible,
    Second, keep on writing is very important to share you opinion on issues of public interests .
    Sincerely James Flores

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