Barbara Sternal, a graduate student in Public History at Central Connecticut State University, was one of our 2018 interns.  She originally wrote this piece for Connecticut Preservation News

The histories of European immigrants who contributed to the growth and prosperity of many cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries have been well documented in many State and National Register nominations. However, this is not usually the case for immigrants from places other than Europe or communities that were formed more recently. One example is the Puerto Rican community in New Britain, which became established in the second half of the 20th century.

New Britain is known for its industrial past, and its factories saw many different cultural groups pass through, including Puerto Ricans. However, the path to New Britain from the island was initially not a direct one. After World War II, Puerto Ricans were recruited to fill a labor shortage on the tobacco farms located between Hartford and Springfield, Massachusetts. Agricultural workers had been difficult to find on the mainland since many people preferred to work in higher-paying factory jobs. Puerto Rico had suffered a depression since before the war, and jobs were scarce. Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor and private companies recruited workers travel to the mainland. Those who came to Connecticut were often married men from lower-income areas who sent money back to the island to their families. Read on below for the full story. 

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Working on tobacco farms was difficult, and living conditions were poor. The men slept in barns, sometimes with no bathroom facilities, and could be fired for any reason and left without compensation. Frequently, there was insufficient food, and the pay was far less than what contracts had stated. 

Because of these issues, many workers left the farms and moved to cities to find better work and higher pay, most often in factories. Sometimes industrial recruiters would even travel to the farms to poach workers for city jobs. These new recruits would then convince others that they knew to join them in the city, or they would reach back to the island to encourage family and friends to migrate. Factory recruiters also traveled to Puerto Rico to find workers. 

New Britain was one of the cities that attracted these workers. Many Puerto Ricans worked in the local tool factories and initially settled in the neighborhood of Washington and Lafayette streets. Others came directly from the island or from New York City, Hartford, and other urban areas. 

By the late 1950s and early 1960s, the size of the Puerto Rican community in New Britain was significant enough that the city completed a study to assess its needs. This study concluded that the community consisted of approximately 2,000 people who came from various urban parts of the island and primarily arrived in the city to seek work that they had heard about by word of mouth. They were predominantly Catholic, and many came from lower-income sectors society with the intention of attaining a better life and opportunities for themselves and their families. 

To help new residents adjust to living in New Britain, the city published a Spanish-language booklet. Titled Bienvenidos a New Britain: Un Guía, it provided advice on various aspects of living in New Britain, including getting acclimated to cold winters and obtaining a car and housing. It also provided a list of agencies and organizations that would provide assistance to the newcomers. 

The Puerto Rican community generally settled near the factories, taking over apartments that immigrants from other ethnic groups had left. Another city report, completed in 1958 in preparation for urban renewal projects, indicated that the Puerto Rican community “has concentrated in the downtown and present and potential redevelopment areas…” These were families who generally had lower income and intended to stay in New Britain, rather than coming for seasonal work and moving back to the island. 

During the following decade, urban renewal projects and highway construction targeted parts of the downtown area. Industrial work also began its decline, and the influx from the island slowed. It was also during this time that Puerto Ricans formed ties with some prominent city institutions. Since the community was predominantly Catholic, religion was an important way to strengthen ties and carry on traditions. After some requests from the community, Saint Mary’s Church, the oldest Catholic church in New Britain, began to hold mass in Spanish and still does so to this day. Saint Mary’s was also the first location of the Spanish Speaking Center, founded in 1964 in the church basement to provide translation assistance, job training, and other services. 

Over time, the Puerto Rican community spread north and west from downtown and by 1971 was estimated to be 8,000 to 10,000 strong, consisting of many recently arrived individuals. That same year, Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostal was founded in a storefront. In 1975, this primarily Puerto Rican congregation purchased a vacant church, which it still occupies.

The changing nature of New Britain’s Puerto Rican population, from migrant workers to permanent residents to young recent arrivals, made it difficult to track and to count accurately. Various sources suggest that official numbers grossly underestimated the size of the population. During the 1980s, the U.S. census indicated that the Puerto Rican population in New Britain doubled, from approximately 6,000 to 12,000, while some estimated that the figure was actually closer to 18,000, citing the language barrier and mobility of the population as reasons for the inaccuracy in the numbers. Regardless of the exact count, the Puerto Rican community grew significantly during the 1980s. Today Puerto Ricans account for approximately one-third of the city’s population.

This is just one example of the many communities whose history is underrepresented in the State and National Registers of Historic Places. What cultural groups are in your local community? Is their history being overlooked or preserved?

Above Photograph:  Iglesia Cristiana Pentecostal occupies the former First Baptist Church, located in both the Walnut Hill and the Downtown National Register districts.  Credit: Barbara Sternal. 

Top Photograph:  New Britain’s oldest Catholic parish, Saint Mary’s Church held the first Spanish-language mass in the city in 1962. It also was the original home of the Spanish Speaking Center, an important community social service resource for many decades.  Credit: Barbara Sternal.