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The Hartford Courant

Matriarch In Puerto Rican Community Dies

Over 62 Years In Hartford, Olga Mele Made Her Mark Through Tireless Social Service

By OSHRAT CARMIEL, Courant Staff Writer

July 23, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

Olga Mele, a pioneering member and matriarch of Hartford's Puerto Rican community, died Sunday. She was 86.

Born in Guayama, Puerto Rico, she arrived in Hartford with her husband, John, in 1941. At the time she was one of few Puerto Ricans in Hartford. But over six decades she became the matriarch of what is now the city's largest ethnic community.

She made her mark through social service, helping the city's earliest Latino residents find jobs, housing and get language training. Friends say if there was a social service group - or a group to champion or celebrate the Puerto Rican community - chances are Mele was involved in it.

"She was a human multi-service agency," said Edna Negron Rosario, regional director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.

News of her death stunned long-time friends and distant admirers, not just because of her legend. Her presence loomed so large, they say, that it seemed she would just be around forever.

"She would never die of old age," Negron Rosario said.

Negron Rosario said that just three months ago, Mele had asked her to document her life in Hartford in an oral history project. Negron Rosario said she regrets not getting around to that sooner.

"She was a pioneer," she said of the red-headed woman she dubbed "the red tornado.' "There were very few of us. There was no one who spoke English. There were no professionals, no doctors, no teachers, no lawyers, nothing."

Mele began her involvement in the community through her dedication to Puerto Rican migrant workers in the 1950s, teaching them about nutrition, offering advice about health services and just about anything else. Over time she worked as a counselor and bilingual program director at the Community Renewal Team, helped found the San Juan Center, organized Hartford's first Puerto Rican parade and ignited early efforts to politically mobilize the Puerto Rican community.

She received many awards, including the national Jefferson Award for community work from the American Institute for Public Service and special distinction award from President Jimmy Carter.

She was a member of St. Peter's Church on Main Street, where she had been a member since her arrival in Hartford.

She is survived by her husband, John Mele, two grown children, three grandchildren and three siblings, who live in Puerto Rico.

Memorial donations may be made to St. Peter's Church Restoration Fund, 160 Main St., Hartford, CT 06106.

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