HARTFORD — Leaders of Puerto Rican parades and festivals from across Connecticut joined state legislators Thursday afternoon for a roundtable discussion on the importance of civic engagement and cultural activities.
The discussion at the Legislative Office Building was hosted by the General Assembly’s Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity & Opportunity. At the start of the event, Latino & Puerto Rican Sub-Commission leader Hilda Nieves welcomed the leaders of the many Puerto Rican parades and festivals and thanked them for their work.
“They do so much more than create vibrant celebrations. They are deeply involved throughout the year in providing educational services, assisting with food insecurity, disaster relief, promoting social justice, and offering critical economic support,” she said.
Since Puerto Ricans began migrating to Connecticut in the 1960s, Puerto Rican parades and festivals have been closely linked to civic engagement, explained Professor Charles Venator-Santiago of the University of Connecticut. He explained that many parades and festivals were a way to support political actions on social justice issues and register Puerto Ricans to vote.
Nearly 60 years after the first Puerto Rican parade was held in Hartford, that tension between cultural celebration and political advocacy is still a part of the celebrations. Joseph Rodriguez remembered organizing the New Haven Puerto Rican parade in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. He explained that the organizers felt a tension between celebrating Puerto Rican culture and the life-threatening circumstances in the territory.
“We struggled with getting back on that stage. How do we celebrate who we are when we know people in Puerto Rico are struggling because of the hurricane?” he asked, rhetorically. “We decided that shame on us if we don’t use these parades and festivals as a call to action.”
As a result, Rodriguez joined leaders of Puerto Rican parades and festivals so that Connecticut Puerto Ricans could provide disaster relief for the island. Moving forward, Rodriguez called on the other leaders to unite and defend the interests of Puerto Ricans both on and off the island.
Meriden Puerto Rican Festival Chairman Hector Cardona Sr. also emphasized the importance of preserving Puerto Rico’s cultural heritage for future generations. As a musician, Cardona remembers playing Parrandas during Christmas and Three King’s Day. As his family grew, so did his band.
“If I had an extra pair of maracas, I would give it to these young kids. It’s their future. They’re the ones that are going to continue this. If this dies, who’s going to teach them?” he asked. ”If we don’t show our children our culture here, it’s going to die.”
Hector Cardona’s son, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona also made a surprise appearance at the meeting via Zoom and thanked the leaders of the parades and festivals for preserving Puerto Rican culture.
After some discussion, legislators responded to the comments and highlighted some of the measures already helping Puerto Rican communities like the education bill that created Black and Latino studies courses, $350,000 in funding for statewide Puerto Rican festivals, $4.5 million in hurricane relief for the territory, a police accountability bill and recent baby bonds issued for low-income families.
State Rep. Hilda Santiago, D-Meriden, also emphasized the importance of preserving Puerto Rican culture and sent a call for Puerto Ricans to get involved in their local politics, both as engaged citizens, active voters and as volunteers behind the scenes of local politicians.
“If we are not at the table, we are on the menu,” she said. “We need people in Congress. We need people at the state level and we need people at the local level. Not everybody has to participate and be elected. But you can help those candidates at the local level. Get involved in your local town committee. That's where the decisions are made because all politics is local.”