Years ago, the name Maria Colon Sanchez was synonymous with leadership in Hartford’s Puerto Rican community. She was bestowed with the honorary title “La Madrina” (The Godmother) by her community. A new generation of young Puerto Rican leaders in the Hartford area is determined to ensure her contributions are remembered and her legacy passed on.
To honor that legacy, each year the Connecticut Institute for Community Development-Puerto Rican Parade Committee (CICD) holds the Maria C. Sanchez Awards Banquet, to be held Saturday, February 7th this year, and the annual Greater Hartford Annual Puerto Rican Parade.
Aura Alvarado, past president of CICD, recalls the time when she joined the organization. She thought she was just helping coordinate a parade. “I had no idea about the history and the amazing people who gave Puerto Ricans a place in Hartford,” she says. “People such as Olga Mele, Luis Ayala, Mildred Torres and Maria Sanchez. These individuals didn’t just coordinate a parade; it was a cultural experience that also served as agents for change. Maria was instrumental in getting the community out to vote– making sure there were interpreters for those who didn’t speak English.”
“This is why the new, young, CICD board needs the support of everyone in the community, especially the Puerto Rican community. There are many past award recipients and they too need to teach the younger generation why and what that means.”
“Our goal is to pass the message down and keep passing the torch to keep the organization and the parade going,” emphasizes Gladys Rivera, CICD vice president and director of events.
Alvarado, Communications Director for CREC also adds, “Our younger Puerto Ricans don’t understand the sacrifice and pride the parade represents. It saddens me when I see our youth disrespecting the parade because no one has taken the time to teach them.”
A native of Comerio, Puerto Rico, Sanchez immigrated to Hartford in 1953 to live with her aunt. After working in local tobacco fields to send money back to her family in Puerto Rico, she eventually saved enough money to open her own storefront, “Maria’s News Stand,” on Albany Avenue in Hartford. Before long, she got involved in politics, and worked to register Puerto Ricans to vote. In 1965, she was elected treasurer of the Puerto Rican Democrats of Hartford.
As an activist in the Puerto Rican community, she co-founded Hartford’s Puerto Rican parade in 1964 and the “Miss Puerto Rico” pageant. She also co-founded La Casa de Puerto Rico, the Society for Legal Services, the Spanish-American Merchants Association, the Puerto Rican Businessmen Association, and the Community Renewal Team. For 16 years, she was a member of Hartford’s Board of Education. In 1988, she was the first Hispanic woman elected to the Connecticut State Assembly.
Sanchez, who passed away in 1989, consistently advocated for mandatory bilingual education in Hartford. She helped create a federally-funded teacher recruitment program for Spanish language teachers.
Another important part of the legacy left by this role model was her belief that every child should have access to higher education. “Maria C. Sanchez stood for the importance of education and advancement of the Latino community. With that said, one of our committee’s key goals is to support the educational aspirations of Latino youth by way of scholarships,” notes Sammy Vega, CICD president.
Funds raised at the banquet support the scholarships and also help support the Puerto Rican Day Parade and cultural festival. Rivera emphasizes that the CICD is a nonprofit organization with an all-volunteer board, whose members all have demanding jobs, but also have a desire to honor the past and embrace the future. The organization does not receive any federal or state grants for the parade and festival. It receives minimal funding from the City of Hartford explains Rivera, a board member for 30 years, so fundraising events such as the banquet and a golf tournament provides the majority of its funding.
With the prominence of the Puerto Rican Day Parade, these volunteers also hope to enhance community pride and work to encourage the building of community. The CICD holds workshops during the year to celebrate Puerto Rican heritage and also hosts the annual Miss Puerto Rico Greater Hartford Pageant to showcase Puerto Rico’s spirited culture.
Undoubtedly, Maria Clemencia Colon Sanchez would be proud.
The annual Maria C. Sanchez banquet will be held on Saturday, Feb. 7, at the Hartford Hilton. A Red Carpet reception begins at 5 p.m., followed by the awards ceremony and entertainment by William Mendoza and The Latin Heartbeat Orchestra at 6 p.m. For tickets and more information, call Damaris Cabrera, 860-462-4750 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. This year’s parade and festival will be held on Sunday, June 7.
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