How did Puerto Ricans acquire the ability to not only adapt to but to thrive in a strange environment?
Early stories told by the first generation suggest that Puerto Ricans had a sense of direction and a goal from the moment they reached “allá fuera”. They came to work and to send money back home to help family that had been left behind. Some came to make money to purchase a house back home, others came to build houses and lives here. Perhaps early migrants looked at New York and what Puerto Ricans had accomplished there, and when Hartford became familiar to them, they mastered their physical environment, they decided to stay and make it their home.
In the beginning Puerto Ricans did not consciously plan how to live in the city. Like other migrant groups, they noticed the obvious-that Hartford was an organization of human space based on ethnicity and social class. The “affordable” area seemed uniquely comprised of immigrants, lacking mobility and money. The spaces available for Puerto Ricans in the Clay Hill neighborhood were crowded and run down, and quality of life and mental health suffered accordingly. Waves of Puerto Rican migrant workers could afford little property of their own. Therefore they anchored their cultural personality in objects, places, religion, and language. Click here to listen to Councilman Luis Cotto talk about Racial Lines that divided the neighborhood.
The Puerto Rican community began to create alternative resources and public spaces and agencies that would become their unique signature on the city. Community leaders rose up to catalyze people’s feelings, images and thoughts to establish a tangible environment that was supportive and welcoming. Puerto Ricans adapted and (semi)assimilated, and under favorable conditions won the confidence of the City’s leadership. Migrants used what they had, motivated by the desire to seek opportunities in a freer and more economically viable environment. As Hartford represented this environment, they learned how to command its space and feel at home in it. Amongst all the unfavorable impressions of poverty, drugs, alcohol, and crime, the city offered a unique setting, topography, skyline, odors, street noises, and wide range of temperatures that stimulated the senses as well as the active and reflective mind. The result was a topographical landscape that, although it did not look like their former lush, tropical haven of colorful colonial buildings, felt like and became home. In 1960 Connecticut had 15,247 identified Puerto Ricans, in 1980 CT had 88,361 and in 1990 Connecticut had the 6th largest Puerto Rican population in the states. Hartford had the most concentrated Puerto Rican population. It was 27% Puerto Rican.
Ultimately Puerto Ricans gained the advantage of residential crowding-a socially conscious, gregarious community warmth that has made Hartford one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the United States. There is no doubt that some migrants were frustrated at the awareness that land and resources were limited, that racial and language discrimination held the masses back. Many were and still are part of the urban poor, frustrated from shuffling in the unemployment and welfare lines, yet the city feels spacious and friendly in its accommodation of them. The social and architectural space of Puerto Ricans in Hartford, with its blightful beauty, tells stories that cannot be overlooked. It offers a heightened awareness of identity and articulates a unique migrant experience that is deeply felt throughout the neighborhoods in which Puerto Ricans settled.