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Associated Press Newswires

It's One Way Or The Other: American? Or Hispanic?


November 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Associated Press Newswires. All Rights Reserved.

MERIDEN, Conn. (AP) - Fifty years after the great migration to the Northeast, Puerto Ricans in Meriden have worked to acclimate to American culture while struggling to maintain their own.

Hector Cardona Sr., 47, has seen a lot of changes since his family moved to Meriden from Aguada, Puerto Rico, in 1960. The youngest child in a large family, he would never have thought to interrupt his father's conversations or drop a candy wrapper on the ground. Either would result in strict punishment.

A Meriden police officer since 1983, Hector Cardona Sr. is one of the Meriden Puerto Rican community's most recognizable citizens, with his salt-and-pepper hair and his handlebar mustache. He can often be seen performing traditional Latin music in uniform with his eldest son and fellow police officer Hector Cardona Jr., 28, at the annual Puerto Rican Cultural Festival in Hubbard Park.

The father of three children, now grown, worked to instill discipline in them with his wife, Sara, and pass on his love of the music of his parents' generation. He saw his children as a way to keep the Puerto Rican culture alive.

"It is dying, even in Puerto Rico," he said. "We're not teaching it to our children."

He used the lessons his parents taught him when raising his three children, stressing respect and discipline.

"I was strict and that was very important," he said. "I let the them know I'm the father but also that I'm their friend."

It has paid off, he said. Miguel Cardona is an instructional associate at Hanover School. Marisol, 24, is working on a master's degree in psychology at Southern Connecticut State University.

He looks back on a good childhood but he remembers, too, that Puerto Ricans faced greater difficulties at the time as they struggled to succeed in a community that did not welcome them. Cardona grew up in the Mills Memorial Apartments and was 13 when Francisco Velez started Meriden's first Puerto Rican Cultural Festival. The Latino community was much more politically active then, something he doesn't see as much in the younger generation.

"I wish they would be more involved," he said. "I mean, they are, but they could be a lot more."

He said that because of gang problems throughout the 1990s, people may be a bit hesitant to trust some Puerto Ricans. But, overall, he sees Puerto Ricans treated more equally.

Velez agreed. The only thing Puerto Ricans were behind in was politics, he said, as only 20 percent of the 3,000 Latinos in town who are registered to vote actually did so.

"There has been some great progress in the community," he said. "The opportunities are better now than there were 20 years ago."

There are more young Hispanics attending college today. And there has been an increase in Latino-owned businesses, with restaurants like Sabor Criollo and Palma del Mar serving Spanish food. For many years, St. Rose Church has offered a Spanish-language mass. Just this past summer, All Saints Episcopal Church began offering Spanish-language services. And, Velez said, there are about 20 Pentecostal churches in Meriden, many of which serve Latinos.

Velez sees his annual festival as one of the Latino community's crown jewels, as every summer several thousand Latinos crowd Hubbard Park to listen to Latin artists and eat Puerto Rican foods.

"There is no other festival like it in Meriden," he said.

Puerto Ricans make up the bulk of Meriden's Hispanic population. Of the city's 58,000 residents, 21 percent are Hispanic (12,296), up from 14 percent in 1990. Of those, 78 percent are Puerto Rican. For the 1999-2000 school year, 33 percent of the Meriden school system's enrollment was Hispanic.

In his office at Hanover School, Miguel Cardona's bookshelves are lined with tomes about different cultures, including "Growing Up Bilingual," which is a sociological study of a Puerto Rican family in the U.S.; and Santiago's memoir.

"In my tape deck you'll find the music of the '40s and '50s," he said. "That was key in me identifying with my Puerto Rican-ness."

As with any culture, being Puerto Rican could not be measured by external signs, such as how much Spanish music a person listens to. Each person defines it for himself.

"That's the beauty of culture," the bespectacled 26-year-old said. "There is never a constant."

For Miriam Rosario, 41, being Puerto Rican did not lie so much in actions as in personal feelings.

"We were raised not to have to be Puerto Rican," she said; they just were.

Rosario, a Kensington Avenue resident, grew up in New Britain before moving to Meriden 14 years ago. Rosario's two children, Mike and Lanette Morrison, are multiethnic - their father is Jamaican - and don't speak Spanish. Both are Platt High School graduates.

"It's not like they don't know their origins," she said. "They've been to Puerto Rico many times ... they don't have a problem with knowing who they are."

At any time of the year in their home, "Jingle Bells" can be heard, as all three share a love of Christmas music. Mike, 21, and Lanette, 20, listen primarily to Rhythm & Blues, though they do appreciate the reggae music of their father's culture.

Rosario hasn't pressured them to adopt her tastes but does wish she had taught them Spanish.

"They understand and can say certain things," Rosario said. "It would help them a lot, though."

Family is the cultural center for Miguel Cardona; food, values and ethics were handed down and celebrated by his parents. Both he and his father use a familial approach in dealing with others, he said.

For Blanco, maintaining his own cultural ties meant simply crossing a border. When he first moved to Connecticut he lived on Park Road in West Hartford, but he found it culturally lacking. He would speak Spanish to anyone who was obviously Latino, but they would almost always answer in English.

"They're trying to hold on to these very American, 18th century things and then there's this bubbling culture going on at Park Street," he said, referring to the mainly Latino section of Hartford.

And even though it meant living in the ghetto, Blanco decided to move to that area because he felt more in tune there than in the suburbs.

One of the first things Mariani, a 2000 Platt graduate, did when he went to college was join the multi-cultural student union, and that has opened his eyes up a lot more, he said - both to different cultures and to his own.

Rosario sees the "Latino-ization" of American culture as a positive thing.

"We would all benefit if we were to learn more about what other cultures are about," he said.

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