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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Hartford Bids A Bilingual Goodbye To A White-Collar Past
By PAUL von ZIELBAUER
May 5, 2003
PHOTO: Douglas Healey for The New York Times
Jason Harris plays in the Little Puerto Rico section of Hartford, where English is a second language for many.
HARTFORD, May 2 To the outside world, Hartford still conjures images of bankers and brokers, hairdressers and haberdashers, a white-collar legacy of a calmly efficient insurance empire. Indeed, that was Hartford. In 1950.
Nowadays, this is far more a struggling city with a diverse population that frequents soul food restaurants and supermercados, poultry markets and panaderias. And, more than ever, Hartford is becoming a city that looks and sounds less like Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck and more like Carlos Lopez and Freddy Ortiz.
Mr. Lopez, 58, a native of Cuba and one of Hartford's most successful businessmen, sells furniture in the Little Puerto Rico section of Park Street, where English is the second language. A few blocks away, on Broad Street, Mr. Ortiz, 61, who arrived here 18 years ago to work for someone else, runs his own bakery, selling Caribbean breads and Latin desserts that attract Hispanics from Boston and Manhattan.
Like roughly half of the other 250 or so Hispanic business owners in Hartford, Mr. Ortiz, who moved here from Ponce, P.R., speaks only Spanish, but that is all right with him.
Founded by a Dutchman and settled by Puritans, Hartford now has the greatest percentage of Hispanic residents of any major city north of Florida and east of the Mississippi.
"We've become a Latin city, so to speak," Eddie A. Perez, who last year became the first Hispanic mayor in Hartford's 367-year history, said in a recent interview. "It's a sign of things to come."
Hispanics now account for more than 40 percent of the city's population the largest concentration among major cities outside California, Texas, Colorado and Florida, 2000 Census Bureau figures show. More than half of Hartford's schoolchildren are Hispanic, and city and state officials expect Hartford's demographic trend to continue.
The Latinization of Hartford, while not universally embraced, took a high-profile turn with the election of Mayor Perez, a New York City native of Puerto Rican heritage who moved to Hartford as a boy in 1969. Since he was elected, City Hall has clearly changed: Mr. Perez's confidential secretary and executive assistant, as well as the city's corporation counsel and two City Council members, are all native Spanish speakers.
Other signs of the times: the city's Web page is bilingual, and after-hours callers to the mayor's office are greeted first by a message in Spanish: "Este mensaje sería repetido en español" (This message will be repeated in Spanish.).
"In the bank, they speak Spanish; at the hospital, they speak Spanish; my bakery suppliers are starting to speak some Spanish," Mr. Ortiz said in Spanish during a break from his bread-making. "Even at the post office, they are Americans, but they speak Spanish."
The Latino boom, of course, is not unique to Hartford. Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the United States, and demographics experts say that by 2050, one-quarter of the nation's population will have Latin roots.
Black support is also considered essential at City Hall 38 percent of Hartford's residents are African-American. But if population trends continue as predicted, Hartford will be the first state capital with a Hispanic majority.
"Those numbers translate into economic and political power," said Julio Morales, a professor at the University of Connecticut's Graduate School of Social Work. "The pace is moving at a faster rate than in the past."
The rapid growth has been accompanied by problems like poverty and school overcrowding.
Hartford's Hispanic roots developed in the 1940's, as Puerto Rican laborers mostly from the island's smaller towns and rural villages were hired to harvest Connecticut's tobacco. Since the 1960's, as more Puerto Ricans settled in between blacks on the North End and Hartford's dwindling white population on the South End, they have been joined by Cuban, Portuguese, Dominican, Colombian, Peruvian, Brazilian and Mexican immigrants.
Tobacco jobs are no longer a lodestone for Puerto Ricans, but the Latin migration to Hartford and other parts of Connecticut less crowded, more affordable and not as ultracompetitive as New York City and its increasingly dense suburbs has steadily grown since the late 1980's.
"Compared to New York, Hartford is country, man," said Hector M. Torres, president of the Hispanic Yellow Pages, whose 145,000 subscribers in Connecticut and western Massachusetts half of them in Hartford and New Haven Counties represent a fivefold increase from the directory's first edition in 1989.
Many of his newer customers, Mr. Torres said, are entrepreneurs who left New York City and Boston for Hartford's less competitive market and slower pace. "`It's a great advantage," he said, "and it does bring a lot of Hispanic families."
Central and South American restaurants and shops are now almost as easy to find as the Puerto Rican and Portuguese businesses that preceded them. Last year, the Peruvian consulate in Boston opened an office in downtown Hartford. And in June, the Spanish-American Merchants Association plans to begin a $6.5 million overhaul of Park Street's roads, sidewalks, street lights and bus shelters.
The 18-month project was intended to make Little Puerto Rico into the New England hub of Hispanic commerce, said Julio Mendoza, the association's executive director.
"We want to empower ourselves," Mr. Mendoza said, "and we want to be known as a regional area."
But the influx of mostly Puerto Rican Hispanics from New York and elsewhere has stretched Hartford's ability to absorb all the newcomers. Jose Cruz, an associate professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany, who published a book about the city's Puerto Rican population, said many families relocated here without a job and with few ways to make money quickly.
"In many ways, socioeconomically, they are jumping from the frying pan into the fire," Professor Cruz said in an interview. In his 1998 book, he noted that poverty rates in some Puerto Rican neighborhoods approached 45 percent.
Hartford's schools are also struggling to correct another acute problem: the dearth of students in the city's mostly black North End schools and the overcrowded classrooms on the heavily Hispanic South End.
City officials say these are temporary growing pains. While Schools Superintendent Robert Henry, a native of Costa Rica, plans to balance classroom sizes by redrawing school district boundaries, Mr. Perez, the mayor, is planning to create jobs by bringing in Hispanic-led corporations to complement, or compete with, the city's financial services and fading manufacturing sectors.
Twice in the past year, Mr. Perez has traveled to Puerto Rico to persuade bank and retail executives to begin operations here.
Last month, executives from Doral Bank, owned by a Puerto Rican conglomerate, spent three days in Hartford to discuss opening a branch here that would specialize in home loans, city officials said. Mr. Perez has made raising Hartford's dismal 24.5 percent home-ownership rate a priority, and his aides said they expected Doral's chief executive to visit sometime in the next several weeks.
A few weeks before the Doral meeting, Mr. Perez also sat down with Manuel Cidre, president of the Puerto Rican Manufacturers' Association, whose members represent a vast source of potential business opportunities for Hartford, a city desperate for jobs and skilled workers.
But formidable barriers economic, political and cultural still must be overcome before Latinos, a young and politically inexperienced group in a city gripped by severe economic problems, can control Hartford as the close-knit group of insurance executives did so famously in the city's affluent postwar heyday.
Though they are a force in the city, Hispanics make up only 10 percent of the 1.1 million residents of the greater metropolitan area, where the mostly white suburbs tend to view Hartford as an impoverished aberration in one of the nation's wealthiest regions. And in a city with such deep Anglo heritage, many Hispanic officials and executives acknowledge that they are still often recognized more for street festivals and salsa music than for economic and political clout.
"The barriers have not come down," said Edna N. Negron, director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration's office in Hartford. "There is a trust level for white folks that we don't have."
Though the trend is in decline, many Hispanic merchants here talk about how local banks were reluctant to grant loans and help start their businesses. Freddy Ortiz, the Puerto Rican baker, said that five years ago, he could not even persuade the electric company to switch on the power in the run-down building he planned to turn into his bakery.
"They said I had no credit," he said. Mr. Ortiz, who paid $39,000 in commercial taxes last year, eventually received a loan from the Spanish-American Merchants Association that allowed him to set up shop.
And many local Hispanic politicians feel that their priorities are not always those of the state's power brokers.
Ms. Negron and other Hispanic leaders have criticized a $771 million downtown revitalization plan here, which includes building a hotel, convention center, new apartment and shopping districts and a tourist-luring science center. They contend that it ignores the city's major Hispanic commercial district, one mile from downtown.
"I think people are understanding that Latinos are here to stay," said Julio Mendoza, the Spanish-American Merchants Association president. "And that instead of fighting it they should be joining it."