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Latino Migration Exhibit at the Windham Textile Museum

Written by Dwight Bachman

 

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                                                  Parade in Hartford                                                   

     Willimantic, Conn: -- Eastern Connecticut State University and the Windham Textile and History Museum will present, "The Latino Migration Exhibit," beginning March 22 and running through Dec. 8. The exhibition is being presented at the textile museum, which is located at 411 Main St. in Willimantic. Museum hours are Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

     The exhibition is a multi-media documentation of the cultural, religious, political and economic life of Latinos in Willimantic, the result of almost two years of collaboration between the museum's board of directors and Eastern faculty and staff.  The Latino Migration Exhibit is part of a series of ethnic exhibitions by the Windham Textile and History Museum to document the histories of immigration to Windham and Willimantic. The exhibit also acknowledges and celebrates the significant contributions that immigrants from Europe, Canada, and Latin America have made to the development and growth of the region since the 19th century.latino migration customs.jpg

   Customs officials conduct their standard inspection of new arrivals from Puerto Rico.

     On April 13 from 2-5 p.m., a public reception will take place in the textile museum as part of the exhibit, and on April 19 at 7 p.m., Norma Boujouen will give a keynote address on Latino migration to Willimantic.

 

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Recruitment of Puerto Rican workers was facilitated by their citizenship status and the rapid expansion of commercial air traffic routes connecting Puerto Rico to the United States.

     Latinos in Willimantic are mostly of Puerto Rican heritage. "While the emphasis is mostly on Puerto Ricans because they still constitute the largest Latino sub-group in the town, through this multi-media presentation, we have also illustrated the recent history of immigration from Mexico, Guatemala, Panama and the Dominican Republic," said Ricardo Pérez, associate professor of anthropology at Eastern and guest curator. "We wanted to create a better representation of the changing landscape of Latino immigration to the town, which mirrors current trends in Latino immigration to other parts of the United States."

      "I am very pleased that our faculty and staff are part of this wonderful exhibit featuring the life of Latinos in Willimantic," said Eastern President Elsa Núñez, "and we are proud of the faculty members who have curated the exhibit. I think patrons and visitors of the Textile Museum will be impressed by the breadth of culture and history on display.  I encourage our entire community to visit the exhibit over the coming months."

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Working conditions were difficult at the Hartford Poultry Company's (HPC) chicken processing plant, with tens of thousands of chickens processed daily. Puerto Ricans, largely from the western town of San Sebastían, were recruited and flown to the United States to work in the HPC plant in Willimantic as early as 1958.

     The Puerto Rican community of Willimantic has its origins in the numerous workers who were recruited during the mid-1950s to work in such industries as poultry, meat packaging, and cotton and textiles, which provided steady employment to a large number of people in eastern Connecticut.

    "The main purpose of this exhibit is to celebrate the historical, economic and cultural contributions of a very dynamic and diverse Latino community," said Arroyo. "This exhibit about the history of Puerto Rican migration to Willimantic will contribute significantly to educate the general population by focusing on the positive contributions that Puerto Ricans have made to Willimantic's history and economy."

 

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Willimantic students in the Puentes al Futuro program receive cultural and enrichment activities as well as academic support in the summer and after-school during the school year.

     "Though the exhibit room is not large, it is filled to the rafters with an impressive display of the culture and history of Latinos," said Jamie Eves, executive director at the mill museum. "We have secured historical documents and materials that will be displayed during the exhibit. We also have identified and selected members from Puerto Rican families that first migrated to town for interviews about the history and development of the Puerto Rican community and other Latino groups since the mid-20th century."

     The exhibit focuses on four themes: labor migration, culture, religion and politics.  Eves, who is also a part-time lecturer in Eastern's History Department, provides the historical background to the economic significance of labor migration to Willimantic's economy. Interviews are conducted with Felipe Silva, a man who worked in both the Hartford Poultry Company chicken processing plant and the American Thread Company, and Maria Rivera, a woman who worked at the chicken processing facility.

 

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                                  Mexico Festival:  Cinco de Mayo celebration.

     While the cultural focus of the exhibit is on Puerto Ricans, it also includes information on Mexicans and Mexican celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo. Interviewees on the exhibit's videos include Leonor Vásquez, who organized the Puerto Rican Awareness Week in 1987; Sofía Cortez-Gómez, who chaired Colectivo Mestizal, a cultural group dedicated to promoting Latino American and Caribbean culture in eastern Connecticut; Leticia Rodríguez, who volunteers to organize the Cinco de Mayo Festival; and Luis Díaz, a retired schoolteacher who talked about the historical significance of race and ethnicity in understanding Puerto Rican culture.

     The exhibit was installed by Roxanne Deojay, interim director of the Akus Gallery at Eastern and Art Professor Imna Arroyo, a well-known Puerto Rican artist whose work critically explores issues about culture and identity. The exhibition will showcase Latino artifacts, music, festivals, lectures, traditions, paintings, printmaking, sculpture and video kiosks, with images reproduced electronically.

Admission for adults is $7; students and seniors are $5; and tickets for members of groups are $4. Museum members and Kids Club members are admitted free of charge. Guided tours take place on Sunday at 2 p.m.

     For more information on the "Latino Migration Exhibit," contact Perez at perezr@easternct.edu ; (860) 465-0191.

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