Waterbury, Connecticut An Evolving Multi-Latino City

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Waterbury, Connecticut An Evolving Multi-Latino City ...

    Waterbury, Connecticut: An Evolving Multi-Latino City


    1 By Ruth Glasser

    ; A local funeral parlor now has a large yellow pages ad saying that it can send

    bodies to Puerto Ricoor Macedonia or the Dominican Republic

    ; A Colombian-born Department of Education employee form a group of Hispanic

    youngsters to dance cumbia in the Waterbury schools. They are applauded as

    good, authentic dancersbut the majority of them are Dominican!

    ; Don Taco is about to open, touted on Spanish-language radio as a new, authentic

    Mexican restaurant, but its creators are the owners of La Cazuela, a local

    Dominican restaurant!


    Connecticut is undergoing a re-Latinization. The state which has had the distinction in recent years of having the largest proportion of Puerto Ricans among its Hispanic

    2population is now experiencing a cultural realignment. Even in Hartford, the largest per-

    capita mid-sized Puerto Rican city in the United States, the first capital city to have a Puerto Rican mayor, Dominicans march prominently in the Puerto Rican paradewith

    3their own flag aloft, merengue and bachata as their auditory accompaniment. Both

    Puerto Ricans and Dominicans also participate in the new annual parade of Peruvians, another group with a growing presence in the city and the state.

     1 Special thanks are due to Delmaliz Medina, who conducted interviews, transcribed, translated, and provided comments on the manuscript. Many thanks also to Luis J. Pomales, who faithfully documented this Puerto Rican to Dominican transition in his photographs. 2 In the 1990 census, 69 percent of all of Connecticut‘s Hispanics were Puerto Ricans, as compared to 49

    percent in New York, the long standing locus of settlement of migrating Puerto Ricans. As of the 2000 census, 60.7 percent of Connecticut‘s Hispanics were still Puerto Rican, as compared to 36 percent in New York. 3 Holyoke, Massachusetts became as of 2000 the largest per capita Puerto Rican city in the United States [almost 36.5%], but its total population of 39,838 makes it a small city.


    This article will look at this changeover from Puerto Rican to multicultural Latino as it is happening in one city, Waterbury, Connecticut. My approach here is eclectic: statistics will be supplemented with evidence of the physical and cultural geography of ethnic changeover. By geography I refer both to the configurations of ethnic space, and the

    4 This geography, in turn, will meanings and attachments with which people endow them.

    be shaped with information culled from oral history interviews with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who have settled in this central-western Connecticut city. Dominicans are the largest group among a multitude of Spanish-speaking immigrants who have begun to settle in Waterbury. Thus, their presence is the most tangible within the new multi-ethnic

    5mix of Hispanic Waterbury. The history of Dominicans in Waterbury is a still-

    unfinished story of immigration and community development. This article will, hopefully, portray their community in the making.

Context: State

    From the 1950s to the contemporary period, Connecticut increasingly became the home of migrants from Puerto Rico. While New York was the overwhelming destination of migrants who came from the island before World War Two and during the immediate post-World War Two era, Puerto Ricans began migrating to states such as Connecticut under agricultural [and a few industrial] contracts. They also came as part of a secondary migration of people leaving New York City in search of industrial jobs, affordable

    6housing and what they hoped would be quieter, safer places to raise their children.

     4 As Lewis Holloway and Phil Hubbard suggest, we need to look beyond numbers to a humanistic geography which takes into account how people change places and endow them with personal meaning. See their book People and Place: The Extraordinary Geographies of Everyday Life (Essex, England:

    Pearson Education Ltd, 2001), p.13. 5 Information for this article is in large part drawn from interviews with more than 50 Puerto Ricans. Twelve Waterbury Dominicans as well as five from other parts of the state were interviewed formally by myself and the students in two Urban and Community Studies classes taught at the University of Connecticut/Waterbury Campus. Informal conversations took place over a period of a year with dozens of Dominicans in a variety of settings, including a local Dominican restaurant, a C-Town supermarket, a Dominican-owned party shop, a Dominican-owned beauty salon, the house of a Dominican childcare provider, Hispanic childcare provider meetings, and a party held at the house of a local Dominican immigrants. Context was also provided by interviews done by students and myself with immigrants to Waterbury from Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Shows, advertisements, and announcements aired over local radio stations also provided clues to this cultural realignment. 6 The Puerto Rican community is still growing at a fairly rapid rate in areas such as Connecticut, it is just not keeping place with the rapid growth of the collectivity of other Spanish-speaking groups.


Puerto Ricans were the overwhelming majority of the state‘s Spanish-speakers until

    about 20 years ago when immigrants from other parts of Latin America began to arrive in significant numbers/proportions. However, as was true in New York and other areas, Waterbury and other Connecticut cities had actually been home to a diverse scattering of

    7 In a sense, multi-ethnic Spanish-speakers before the large-scale Puerto Rican migration.the re-Latinization of states such as Connecticut and cities such as Waterbury mirrors these earlier trends, though on a larger scale and with some class differences. If trends continue, it is the identification of Hispanic Connecticut with Puerto Ricans that will be seen as the short-lived anomaly in the overall picture.

Context: Waterbury

    Connecticut is unlike most Northeastern states in that its urban life takes place in relatively small citiesits largest city, Bridgeport, is only 139,529 people, followed by

    8four other cities whose populations hover between 100,000 and 125,000. In these small

    cities, it has been possible for one type of business to dominate the economy, or for a cluster of interlinked businesses to have an enormous impact in their presenceor

    absence. Most of these cities, and many of Connecticut‘s smaller cities and towns, had a primarily industrial economy until the late 1970s, when their large industries, in decline since the end of World War Two, began to shut down or drastically cut their work

    9forces. In these factory town settings, layoffs of a few thousand or even a few hundred people from one facility are significant. In such small cities, the presence of even a few hundred or thousand migrants or immigrants from one part of Latin America can also have a noticeable impact. Obviously, Hartford is the one of the largest per capita Puerto Rican cities in the United States largely because like Lawrence, Massachusetts [which holds the same distinction for Dominicans] it is such a small city that although its

     7 See, for example, Gabriel Haslip-Viera, ―The Evolution of the Latino Community in New York City:

    Early Nineteenth Century to the Present,‖ in Gabriel Haslip-Viera and Sherrie L. Baver, eds., Latinos in

    New York: Communities in Transition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996), pp.3-29. 8 According to the 2000 census, New Haven‘s population was 123,626; Hartford‘s 121,578; Stamford‘s 117,08; and Waterbury‘s 107,271. 9 See, for example, Jeremy Brecher, Jerry Lombardi, and Jan Stackhouse, compilers and eds., Brass Valley:

    The Story of Working People’s Lives and Struggles in an American Industrial Region (Philadelphia:

    Temple University Press, 1982; Thomas R. Beardsley, Willimantic Industry and Community: The Rise and

    Decline of a Connecticut Textile City (Willimantic, CT: Windham Textile and History Museum, 1993) and

    Douglas W. Rae, City: Urbanism and Its End (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).


    population numbers are dwarfed by those of New York City and many other

    10 municipalities and regions, its proportion is so great.

Within modest-sized cities, relatively small populations can have a great impactwitness

    Eddie Perez‘s rise as the first Puerto Rican mayor of a capital city, Hartford, the political impact Dominicans are having in places such as Lawrence or Haverstraw in Rockland County, New York, both of which were key voting centers in the May 2004 Dominican presidential election. Unfortunately, there is still a dearth of studies concerning the impact of such recent immigrant and migrant groups upon the many small, largely post-industrial cities and towns that are an important part of the social fabric of the Northeast. This piece is intended to illustrate the importance of such towns for Latinos in the New England area by using the example of one city, Waterbury. Waterbury to a certain extent is emblematic of smaller cities which become receiving grounds for a secondary migrationof relatives and friends of those who are already there, as well as of people who find New York to be too big, too expensive, too dangerousand may indicate

    important trends for the future for migration and settlement of newer Latino groups.

    Waterbury, population 107,271 according to the 2000 census, is a hilly city located in Connecticut‘s Naugatuck Valley, along the river of the same name. It is neither the bucolic, rural Connecticut nor the affluent suburban Connecticut portrayed in movies. It is part of a hardscrabble industrial corridor where legions of immigrants from Europe, Lebanon, the Cape Verde Islands, French Canada, as well as African American migrants

    thfrom the US South have come to live in successive waves between the mid-19 century

    and World War Two.

    For a long time, Waterbury was part of the most heavily industrialized, working class region of the state. From its mill-on-the-river and ‗Yankee peddler‘ days in the early

    1800s, Waterbury evolved into the center of the brass industry and related manufacturing, such as of buttons and clock parts. Later, other metal parts processing plants for the

     10 As of the 2000 census, Hartford was 32.6 percent Puerto Rican. Lawrence was 22.5 percent Dominican. Haverstraw, New York, which is a village of some 10,000 rather than a city, was nearly 27 percent Dominican.


    cosmetics, automotive, and airline industries developed in the area, as well as some small

    11 textile and apparel factories.

    Some 90 miles and over an hour and a half from midtown Manhattan on a light traffic day, Waterbury is decidedly not part of the New York metropolitan area. In this respect it is unlike Danbury and other cities of Fairfield County where a multitude of immigrants, including a substantial Dominican population, have been arriving in what may be a spillover from New York or an attempt to maintain a reasonable commuting distance to that city. It is very difficult for someone living in Waterbury and working hard to maintain New York City as part of a frequent orbit. Coming to Waterbury is thus a strategic choice, a complete change of location.

    Spanish-speakers who have come to live in Waterbury have mainly been people looking for factory jobs, in contrast to some of their counterparts in other areas of Connecticut. For example, a handful of wealthy Spanish-speakers, most noticeably Puerto Ricans and Cubans, settled along Connecticut‘s shoreline from the mid-nineteenth century onward as

    merchants or sent their children to be educated at elite boarding schools or Yale

    12University. Hartford, historically the center of the nation‘s insurance industry, has also attracted more white collar employees in a multitude of professions, a legacy reflected in its more institutionally developed Hispanic mercantile community and Dominican political and social networks.

    From earliest times, those who came to Waterbury were there to labor in the area‘s brass mills or related industries, or plied their trade as barbers, boardinghouse keepers, or proprietors of other small businesses that were directly dependent upon the city‘s

    13industrial workers. In the post-World War One period, for example, Spaniards could be found living in the Chase Brass company‘s barracks or other North End housing, and

     11 Brecher, Lombardi, and Stackhouse, Brass Valley, passim. 12 Ruth Glasser, Aquí Me Quedo: Puerto Ricans in Connecticut (Middletown, CT: Connecticut Humanities

    Council, 1997), p.33. 13 Ibid.


    14 Cuban and Spanish storekeepers and boardinghouse working at the Chase factories.

    proprietors are reported by pionero Puerto Ricans to be among those who housed, fed,

    and otherwise attended to their needs when they arrived to work in local factories and foundries in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Puerto Ricans in Waterbury

    A few Puerto Ricans were found in Waterbury in the pre-World War Two era. However, it was during the late 1940s and early 1950s that Puerto Ricans began to arrive in significant numbers and work in the foundries and factories of Waterbury and its surrounding towns. Most came from south-central mountain and coastal towns and cities such as Peñuelas, Utuado, Jayuya, Guánica, and Ponce. Interviews reveal that the typical pattern was for people to spend a very brief period in New York Citysometimes only

    as long as it took to board a train to Connecticut-- and then to come up to Naugatuck or Waterbury to live in boardinghouses or join relatives. Others came to Waterbury through a more circuitous processagricultural contracts arranged by the Puerto Rican

    Department of Labor. Such migrants worked on vegetable farms, orchards, and nurseries in surrounding towns, eventually making their way over to Waterbury, where the

    15factories offered better pay and a more independent lifestyle.

    The migration pattern among Puerto Ricans was one of young, often married men coming first, getting established in jobs, and then sending for their loved ones. When their families arrived, Puerto Ricans typically settled, at least at first, in the areas surrounding downtown, most particularly the city‘s South End. The community grew through chain migrationrelatives and friends coming over to join those who were already here, secondary migration from New York, and of course, through a second generation born here. Interviewees report that there were some distinctions and hierarchies between the different migrant streams. Puerto Ricans from the island‘s cities sometimes characterized

    the migrants from mountain towns as jíbaros who were easily identified by their

    countrified dress and behaviors. Geographically-based subcultures also reportedly

     14 Charles R. Walker, cited in Brass Valley, p.53. ; Consuelo Lanza and Linda Tirado, interview by Ruth

    Glasser, July 3, 1995. 15 Glasser, AquíMe Quedo, p. 63.


developed between the more ‗street-smart‘ Nuyoricans and those who came directly from

    16 the island.

    In these early days, however, migrant Puerto Ricans seemed to have gathered around religion, secular community activities, and shopping. Most of the early migrants gathered in the basement of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church in downtown Waterbury, later working with a local priest, John Blackall, to form a Hispanic

    17parish in the late 1950s in the formerly German St. Cecilia‘s. Sports teams, Boy Scouts,

    political and social clubs grew up among the Puerto Ricans of the late 1950s and early 1960s. From the mid-50s on, a small but vibrant Puerto Rican business community began to form on South Main Street and in other areas of the South End contiguous to downtown. People who worked in factories got loans from relatives and friends to start bodegas, furniture stores, record, and jewelry stores. Couples would arrange for an elderly relative to care for their children while they themselves minded the store and worked in local factories in alternating shifts.

    Puerto Ricans often had friendly relationships with members of earlier immigrant groups as they went through this process. Closest relationships were with those of the ―newer‖ migration streams of the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Puerto Ricans were mentored in their business practices and bought stores, for example, from retiring Jewish merchants. They selected Italian godparents for their children, rented apartments from Portuguese landlords. In the South End, they lived among French-Canadian, Lebanese-, Portuguese-, and Italian-American families. In the North End, they lived among African Americans.

    The building of the interstate highway and urban renewal, both of which came relatively late to Waterbury, devastated many of early Puerto Rican attempts at community-building. In a one-two punch, the building of Interstate 84 through Waterbury in the late

     16 Araminta Cortés and Lillian Martínez, interview by Ruth Glasser, July 29, 1998; Victor Cuevas, interview by Ruth Glasser, January 30, 1996. These distinctions have been reinforced by other interviewees, as well as distinctions based on religion and politics. 17 Glasser, Aquí Me Quedo, p.109.


    1950s and early 1960s [and its later further expansion into the South End in the early 1970s] and the 1970s projects of the Waterbury Redevelopment Agency flattened many of the houses, storefronts, and clubhouses of the fragile, still-forming community. Even St. Cecilia‘s Church was not spared by the bulldozer. After the original church was knocked down, members of the embattled congregation were forced to relocate to a much

     18 smaller building on one of the blighted streets adjacent to the ‗renewed‘ area.

    Members of the pionero generation had managed to get relatively well-paying factory jobs, though as newcomers and people of color they struggled with discrimination and were often employed in the least desirable, most dangerous jobs. These jobs offered steady work, benefits and overtime, however, and with them many were able to buy homes and to educate their children. In fact, scores of those children ended up as members of the professional classmost notably social service workers and teachers

    who ministered to the newer migrants still coming from Puerto Rico and, increasingly, from other countries. These children typically moved away from the increasingly devastated inner city neighborhoods to the outlying areas of Waterbury and to nearby suburbs. Parents often followed this trend. Although some retired to Florida or to Puerto Rico, a sizable number remained in the Waterbury area, and their children overwhelmingly opted not to ‗return‘ to the island-- if they had ever been there in the first


    Thus the first generation of Puerto Rican pioneros and their children were able, as immigrant groups had before them, to achieve upward mobility with a base of good factory jobs and to create some small businesses and other institutions. However, a combination of the physical havoc of highway building and urban renewal, along with the closing of the ‗Big Three‘ brass mills and other local manufacturers not only destroyed

    many of these institutions, but made it difficult for ensuing migrants to scale similar social and economic ladders. Newcomer Puerto Ricans and immigrants from other parts of Latin America found a community with a shrinking supply of low cost housing, fewer job opportunities, and scant community-generated stores and services.

     18 Glasser, Aquí Me Quedo, passim.


Waterbury‘s New Latino/Dominican Immigrants

    However, context is everything, and both the sending country conditions and those of New York City made smaller cities such as Waterbury an attractive choice for members of other Latino groups. As Mahler points out, within the new ‗hourglass‘ economy, immigrants from countries where the dollar stretches far are able to sustain lives at home

    19 In Waterbury, where the rent is and here with jobs at the bottom of the hourglass.

    substantially cheaper than in New York, the proposition becomes even more workable.

    That Waterbury was becoming an increasingly popular choice for non-Puerto Rican Latinos is borne out by the census figures. Even if we consider the peculiarities and inconsistencies in the way the census has been conducted, the figures are striking. In 1980, out of a reported total of 6,912 of ―Spanish Origin‖ in Waterbury, 5,819, or 84 percent, were Puerto Rican. As of 2000, they were down to 77.7 percent out of a total of 23,354. In the meantime, Hispanics had climbed to 22 percent of Waterbury‘s population. There were growing numbers of Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, and Cubans. Particularly prominent in that rise were Dominicans, who now numbered 1,336, more

    20than three times their number of ten years before.

    Dominican immigration differed markedly from the Puerto Rican migration in ways that fed into the economy. As in many places, the jobs that remained in Waterbury tended to be in smaller factories that paid relatively low wages. Often they were apparel or other

    21lighter industrial jobs that tended to employ women.

     19 Sarah J. Mahler, American Dreaming: Immigrant Life on the Margins (Princeton: Princeton University

    Press, 1995), pp.7-10. 20U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1980 Census of Population and Housing, Census

    Tracts Waterbury, Connecticut SMSA (July 1983) Table P-7; Data Set: 1990 Summary Tape File 3 Sample Data, Table PO11: Hispanic Origin: Persons, Waterbury, Connecticut; Data Set: Census 2000 Summary File 1 100 Percent Data, QT-P9: Hispanic or Latino by Type: Waterbury, Connecticut, Dominicans in Waterbury are the second-highest after Danbury, which has 2,033 Dominicans according to the 2000 census. 21 The pattern in Waterbury and other Dominican urban enclaves of Connecticut confirms that found in New York City. Sherri Grasmuck and Patricia Pessar, for example, describe the importance of Dominican women as workers within New York‘s declining-wage apparel industry. Between Two Islands: Dominican

    International Migration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p.167.


    And it was women who were coming in significant numbers from the Dominican Republic. Unlike the older Puerto Rican pattern of single young men coming alone, young women were often coming first, with or without their children, looking for jobs and a new place to live. Immigrants from the Dominican Republic were more urbanized,

    22 Whereas many of the earlier Puerto Rican with stronger serial migration patterns.

    migrants had come from smaller mountain or coastal towns, the Dominicans who immigrated appear to have come from larger cities such as Santo Domingo or Santiago. Some had started off in smaller towns, particularly in the Cibao region. However, even those had typically migrated starting from a young age to ever-larger and more urbanized areas in search of education, jobs, or to join husbands. Moreover, there was a tendency for Dominican immigrants to spend several years in New York City before coming to


    Perhaps as a result of the logistical and monetary difficulties of emigrating from the Dominican Republic rather than migrating from Puerto Rico, these newcomers also seem to have enjoyed at least a slightly higher economic position than the typical Boricua migrants to Waterbury. Whereas the latter were often struggling small farmers, farm laborers, or fishermen, Dominican immigrants interviewed were more typically children of small business proprietors or farmers or ranchers with sizable landholdings, or

    24themselves had operated businesses that were thwarted by a teetering economy.

    Francisco Hernández, for example, was born in the town of Guaranico in the Puerto Plata region, where his family had a farm. He later moved to the capital to pursue his education. Hernández had trouble finding work in Santo Domingo, so he moved to

     22 A later generation of Puerto Rican migrants to Waterbury would share this pattern, but not the class advantages described in the ensuing paragraphs. 23 Grasmuck and Pessar‘s book, Between Two Islands, passim, makes a strong case for the prior urban

    background of many Dominican immigrants to the United States. 24Truisms often repeated by both Dominican and Puerto Rican im/migrants suggesting that Dominicans are ‗naturally‘ business-minded can be better understood in terms of their class position, which provides them with appropriate economic and social capital. See Grasmuck and Pessar‘s claims that ―Dominican men[‗s]

    premigration employment often placed them in the ranks of the middle class or the upper working class,‖ Between Two Islands, p.157, and their discussion on p.171 concerning the urban, highly-skilled backgrounds found among many undocumented immigrants.


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