MERIDEN — For the second year in a row the Puerto Rican Festival has been canceled because of concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, yet scholarships associated with the festival are increasing thanks to an initiative involving coffee mugs and U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
The festival typically takes place the first weekend of August, drawing thousands of people to Hubbard Park. Canceling this year’s festival was the result of wanting “to be on the safe side,” said Hector Cardona, festival committee chairman. “I’d rather be safe than have anybody get sick.”
While the festival is canceled, scholarships aren’t. There are tentative plans to hold an event at the Meriden Green in June, a “Latin night, or something to that effect,” said Cardona.
Hector Cardona’s son, Miguel Cardona, would typically be involved in the scholarships, but since his responsibilities have risen to the national level that task has been taken on by Diana Alicea, a cousin who usually oversees the cultural tent at the festival.
The festival committee typically awards $1,000 scholarships to students at each Meriden high school: Platt, Maloney and Wilcox Tech. That has now expanded to an additional $1,000 scholarship for each high school, plus $4,000 in scholarships for adult learners, including college students and those attending technical school.
Applications involve essays, and are due May 14.
The boost from the sale of mugs was unanticipated. The impulse arose just before Christmas last year, when Miguel Cardona, then Connecticut’s education commissioner, was nominated to become the nation’s education secretary. Alicea and her neighbor, Cathy Martorella, came up with the idea.
“We were talking about Miguel and how excited we were,” recalled Alicea.
“There’s such pride in the family and it was so cool to be able to celebrate with them,” said Martorella.
The effort also included Alicea’s daughter, Briana
Alicea, who designed the print on the mug. The idea was to give one as a gift to Miguel Cardona.
The mugs have a photo of Miguel Cardona and the phrase “as American as apple pie and rice & beans.”
Thanks to the mug sales, $8,000 was donated to the scholarship fund, said Alicea. “We had tremendous success with them.”
When President Joe Biden, on Dec. 23, 2020, introduced Miguel Cardona as his pick for education secretary, he called him “a brilliant educator who would help further his administration’s commitment to reopening schools safely,” according to the Associated Press report at the time.
Miguel Cardona, who made several comments in Spanish, highlighted his upbringing: “I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans,” he said.
The phrase has helped have an exponential influence when it comes to the mugs, which sell for $20 with part of the proceeds going toward the scholarship fund.
The phrase is also on T-shirts from Simply Smashing, in Wallingford, that have raised $310 for the scholarships, said Hector Cardona.
The mugs have now traveled to recipients as far as Alaska and Puerto Rico.
“It was amazing,” said Diana Alicea, “we mailed them all over the place.”
From the modest beginning at Miguel Cardona’s nomination, sales started accelerating at the turn of the new year with the establishment of a page on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/ApplePieAndRiceAndBeansMugs/.
“People just kept ordering them,” recalled Martorella.
Martorella and Diana Alicia would spend weekends in January and February at Maloney High School, where those who’d ordered could pick up their mugs.
Martorella said that in 16 years as a city resident, “I’ve never seen such hometown pride.”
“It was such a great experience to go through, especially with COVID,” she recalled. “It was nice to be part of something so positive. It was 100 percent word of mouth at this point, and the next thing you know we’re shipping all over the place.”
About 1,000 mugs have been sold. They’re also now available at Gallery 53, on Colony Street.
Diana Alicea said “a bulk” of the orders have been from educators, many from within Meriden.
“The bottom line is that people are generous and will give when the opportunity is available,” said Michael S. Rhode, a city councilor and member of the Puerto Rican Festival committee.
Applications for the scholarships are available at Meriden’s high schools and on the Meriden Puerto Rican Festival Facebook page.
Jeffery Kurz is editorial page editor for the Record-Journal. He can be reached at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com.