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'Hard Work Is Colorblind' Nonprofit Agency Assisting Latinos
'Hard Work Is Colorblind'
John Soto remembers when the factory foremen in New York turned him away.
By TINA A. BROWN / Courant Staff Writer
May 9, 2004
(PHOTO: Tom Brown)
"We don't want your kind around here," Soto says they told him.
The factory bosses of his day - some 50 years ago - didn't hire people who spoke with Spanish accents, Soto says. But that didn't deter him from hitting the pavement until he found work.
Soto, now a multimillionaire from Woodbridge, has spent the past 30 years operating factories from Connecticut to Oklahoma. He doesn't like talking about the obstacles he faced as a young Puerto Rican in New York City. He'd rather talk about the home runs in his life than the strikeouts. If he were an athlete, Soto would be a long-distance runner.
"I had a need to achieve. It's more important than anything in my life," says Soto, the owner of Space-Craft Manufacturing Inc. in New Haven.
At 17, he was married and had a baby girl on the way. He had dropped out of high school in Harlem, so the native of Fajardo, Puerto Rico, says he focused on getting a job at a time when there were very few Puerto Ricans in New York's Harlem.
When he did get a job at a factory, Soto was often the only Puerto Rican male, a demographic that he grew accustomed to in high school.
"In school, it was black, white and me," Soto jokes. In the factories, he'd be the only one among mostly Germans and other European factory workers, but he was determined to prove that hard work is colorblind.
In the 1950s, Soto says, "I was out there trying to survive. I was never trying to prove anything. I was an innocent kid trying to make a living. I felt like a pioneer."
There were very few Puerto Ricans going for those jobs, Soto says, and when he did get one, he was the only Puerto Rican.
When other workers told him outright that he wasn't wanted, Soto says he mouthed "stupid" under his breath and kept working.
"I did the best I could. I had a job to make a living. You go over there and work your fanny off. Your color disappears. You've got to work for it," Soto says. "It's not going to be given to you."
He says he worked 15- and 16-hour days, starting from the most menial jobs assembling airplane parts to fixing them, before being promoted to factory foreman, then general manager, and finally owner of an aircraft parts company in Milford and New Haven.
It took him 25 years once he went to a factory in Milford to go from punching a clock to signing checks. Those experiences prepared him to take over the business in the 1970s, and in 1975, Soto was named New England's Businessman of the Year.
Again, he came face-to-face with questions about his ethnicity. People asked how could he, a Puerto Rican, have accomplished that?
"What do you mean?" he says he responded. "Because I'm a human being."
Over time, Soto has been awarded numerous honorary degrees and awards including the National Supplier of the Year from the U.S. Air Force in 2001. He said that outsiders assume he was recognized because he had obtained "minority contracts."
"I don't believe in them," Soto says. "If we do what we are supposed to do, you will be successful. It has nothing to do with politics and race, but you as an individual."
Nonprofit Agency Assisting Latinos
By AMY ASH NIXON, Courant Staff Writer
August 9, 2004
NEW BRITAIN -- A South Main Street storefront where people once repaired furniture is now home to a fledgling nonprofit agency that wants to repair lives.
Latinos In Action got its start in 2000, when Miguel A. Nieves decided that the city's growing Latino population needed an advocate.
Nieves, 38, a native of Puerto Rico who now lives in New Britain, is president of the group, which recently got nonprofit tax status.
"We started in the year 2000 as a community group," Nieves said last week.
In recent years, Nieves has taken several paths to help the Latino population here - a sizable community that he believes is under-represented in government.
He ran for alderman on the Democratic Party ticket in 1999. He got 3,498 votes, but did not win a seat. He was one of 10 people who began the United Party, a third political party that had little success.
Now his passion is Latinos in Action. It is an all volunteer organization, including Nieves.
A call Nieves took one morning was from Goodwin College, committing to have a booth at a service fair on Aug. 21. The event also will feature screenings by the American Red Cross.
The agency is seeking sponsors and volunteers who wish to make positive change in New Britain, according to the brochure for a Latino Community Festival set for Sept. 5.
The group's office is modest. There's old shag carpeting, a few card tables, a few used computers, a few handmade posters and some snapshots of Nieves and other volunteers with a dozen smiling boys at camp programs sponsored by the group this summer.
Two different sets of boys attended camps in Bolton and in Wethersfield. There may be a girls session next year if adult female volunteers can be found and trained.
In addition to hosting festivals and summer camps, the group backs issues it believes are important, such as the rights of immigrants.
"The immigrants should have the same rights as anyone else. We have the same dreams and inspiration and why not make life a little easier and help their dreams come true?" he said.
A women's empowerment group is using the new office, helping women to develop job skills and confidence under the volunteer help of Ning Cruzado, Nieves said. The women are offered everything from free makeup for interviews to resume writing practice.
Still, the group needs help itself to fund its dreams.
Nieves said he began applying for a grant from the New Britain Foundation for Public Giving, but the paperwork was intimidating. He needs help to complete it.
He's hoping a professional grant writer will donate some time to help him finish the application and navigate the complicated waters of obtaining public funds.
Bill Millerick, president of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce, said Latinos In Action deserves help and is sincere in its wishes to do good in the city. The group recently joined the chamber as a nonprofit member.
"I've been working with Miguel for about a year," Millerick said. "He really began the organization as a grassroots effort on his own, and he's trying to accomplish a number of things, from festivals to trying to get into workforce development, job placement and more."
The chamber is working to help find sponsors for Latinos In Action. Millerick will be a speaker at a jobs seminar to be hosted by the group. The event is planned for Aug. 27 at the YMCA, according to a Spanish-language announcement on the group's website.
Latinos in Action has an office at 194 South Main St. Its phone number is 860-223-2500. Information about the group and events may be found at www.latinosinactionct.org/