MERIDEN — There’s a sure sign that you’ve reached the Amity Street home of Hector and Sarah Cardona: It’s a silhouette depiction of a mustache on the garage door. If you’re from Meriden that’s likely to be enough, but just in case there’s also an unofficial street sign behind the garage that declares it’s “Hector’s Way.”
Inside the home there’s a framed print with a message that’s also identifying: “A family together, never apart, maybe in distance, but never at heart.”
That perspective has come into play since son Miguel Cardona became United States secretary of education. Miguel Cardona’s rise has been described as meteoric; in less than two years he went from assistant superintendent of Meriden schools to the top education position in the nation.
And in between, he was Connecticut’s education commissioner.
“I would be saying when he was commissioner, ‘Where do you go from here?’” recalled Hector Cardona.
Sitting down recently to talk about the experience, the couple was interrupted occasionally by a punctuating bark from Taco, a 10-year-old Chihuahua, and a chiming wall clock that Hector picked up at a tag sale.
“We were very, very shocked when he told us he’d received a call from the White House,” recalled Hector Cardona. “We were surprised when he got a call for the state commissioner’s job. And we thought, ‘Where’s he going to go from here?’ And the next thing you know a year later he gets a call from Washington.
U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks next to wife Marissa and children, Miguel Jr., 16, and Celine 14, of Meriden, during a livestream event at Maloney High School in January following his nomination. | Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
“He’s good with kids. He used to love his job as a teacher,” he continued. “I remember when he got promoted to principal. When he went to the main office he missed being with the kids.”
In both instances, the state and national positions, the job had come to him.
“He’s humble,” offered Sarah Cardona.
"He thinks from the heart. So the decisions that he makes he’d be making as if it were for his own children."
“I told him when he was commissioner you’re not going to please everybody,” said her husband. “It’s a political job and no matter what you do somebody’s going to like it, somebody’s not going to like it. So, you can’t please everybody in that position. He thinks from the heart. And he wouldn’t do anything to the kids that he wouldn’t do to his own kids. So the decisions that he makes he’d be making as if it were for his own children.”
Miguel Cardona’s siblings have also been successful. Older brother Hector Cardona Jr. is a detective sergeant with the city police department, and younger sister Marisol Chang is a public school social worker, in Florida. All three are graduates of Meriden’s Wilcox Technical High School.
“All three of them are blessings,” said Sarah Cardona.The mustache
Now 66, Hector Cardona retired from the Meriden Police Department at the end of 2013. A Record-Journal story about his retirement called him the “city’s most recognizable police officer.”
Yet the signature, award-winning mustache was not in evidence when he first sought a job as a police officer in 1983. Police Chief George Caffrey told him he would have to shave his full beard. Hector Cardona wanted some indication that if he did shave he’d get the job, but no such assurance was forthcoming. He had to shave on faith.
Hector Cardona smiles while talking about his new role as chairman of the Puerto Rican Festival in 2010. | File photo
“Caffrey told me, ‘Go shave and come back,’” Cardona told the Record-Journal after Caffrey died, in 2016. “I ran home, shaved my beard and he hired me. He was a very good man. I owe him my job.”
At Hector Cardona’s retirement, Police Chief Jeffry Cossette called him “one of the most service-oriented police officers that I have ever known. He is certainly one of the most popular. His service to the community has gone far above that of a regular police officer.”‘You have to be good with yourself’
Both Hector and Sarah Cardona started life, born a year apart, in Aguada, Puerto Rico. Hector’s father, Avelino Cardona, worked in the sugar cane industry.
Though their parents knew one another, Hector and Sarah did not meet until years later, at St. Rose Church in Meriden.
"I am the root of my family and if the root is not good, the branches will not flourish."
Hector Cardona is the youngest of seven children. There is a wide age range, with his oldest sister having been born in 1936. That sister, Donata, came to New York City at the invitation of an aunt; then a brother, Virgilio, came to Meriden because there were uncles living in the city.
The lure was job opportunity, and Hector, his parents and a younger sister moved to Meriden when he was 6 years old. His father had jobs with National Fence, and Howard Johnson’s. The family lived on Court Street, then at the corner of Twiss and Pratt streets, and then moved to the Mills Memorial Apartments when Hector was 9 years old.
In 2018, Hector Cardona was inducted into the Meriden Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, Marisol Chang spoke about her father’s contributions to civic organizations, his leadership role in the Hispanic community and his police work.
The Record-Journal account of the ceremony noted that Hector Cardona had been assigned to the Mills in 1986, when Meriden began its community policing effort. Gang presence at the housing complex was high. “It was an assignment he welcomed,” said the newspaper. “Cardona grew up in the Mills and recalled that his father was strict with him, something that benefited him throughout his own life and in his relationships with his own children.”
Hector Cardona gets an adjustment from his son Hector Jr. and grandson Hector III before the ceremony the 42nd Meriden Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2018 | File photo
“In order for you to be good with people, you have to be good with yourself,” Hector Cardona was quoted as saying. “I am the root of my family and if the root is not good, the branches will not flourish.”
Two months after his induction into the city’s Hall of Fame, Hector Cardona was there when the final section of the Mills was torn down. The demolition of the section, at the corner of Pratt and Cedar streets, took just a few minutes.
“It’s sad to see it go,” he told a reporter. “I loved it, you know, but you gotta move on.”‘You learn as you go along’
Neither Hector nor Sarah Cardona knew any English when they first arrived in Meriden. Sarah, who is from a family of 13, came with her mother, Germana Muniz, and eight siblings when she was 13 years old. The help with language learning that is common today was not available at the time, but there was the advantage of being young.
“You learn as you go along,” said Hector.
When she was 15, as the oldest daughter Sarah took on the responsibility for running the household and her eight siblings because her mother needed to undergo treatment for tracheal cancer.
“I was in charge,” she recalled. “It was hard.”
It was also at this time that she met Hector. They were married in 1972.
The couple, who have five grandchildren, say they tried to teach their children respect and the importance of education. Hector had joined the Police Department because he wanted to give back to the city, and the importance of giving back is something they’ve also tried to pass on.
“I’ve known Hector and Sarah since I was a child,” said Michael Cardona, Meriden’s deputy mayor and city councilor at-large. “They both are supportive and still value family time as paramount by getting together frequently.”
Michael Cardona’s father and Hector Cardona are first cousins.
“I know they sacrificed a lot as parents to make sure their children had a lifestyle they were not able to have growing up,” Michael Cardona said, in an email. “They emphasized a strong work ethic as well as a sense of commitment to finish what they started. I think that’s fared well for all of their children as they all turned out to be responsible and caring adults.”
Jeffery Kurz is editorial page editor for the Record-Journal. He can be reached at 203-317-2213, or email@example.com. Twitter: @jefferykurz.