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Connecticut Hispanics address community issues, assert political power

Over 50 Latino community members in Waterbury come together for a listening session addressing local concerns.
Maricarmen Cajahuaringa
Connecticut Public
Over 50 Latino community members in Waterbury come together for a listening session addressing local concerns.

Professors and researchers from the University of Connecticut are continuing their listening sessions with Latino residents across the state, in a multi-week effort to compile priorities for lawmakers called the Latino agenda.

On Tuesday, the Waterbury session, led by UConn's Puerto Rican and Latino Studies initiative in collaboration with the School of Social Work, aimed to uplift and advocate for Hispanic communities.

Organizers said that since its inception, the initiative has collected data analyses and oral histories to document the rich stories of Puerto Ricans and Latinos in the state.

Charles Venator, an associate professor of political science at UConn, highlighted census data revealing high housing costs in Connecticut, emphasizing that Latinos allocate a significant portion of their income to rent, mortgages, hospital bills and food.

“Puerto Ricans and Latinos account right now for a fifth of the population of Connecticut, and possibly higher. We know that the census counts are totally undercounted,” Venator said. “My suspicion is within the next 10 years, Puerto Ricans and Latinos are going to count for a quarter of the population of the state of Connecticut.”

During the session, advocates said that as the Latino population surges, the initiative is expanding beyond Puerto Rican experiences to encompass and consider the diverse experiences of Hispanics across Connecticut.

State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said the listening sessions started in Hartford and New London in December 2023. They have collected insights from residents in Latino-populated towns, enabling them to share experiences with legislators and engage in various forums. Each session has drawn 40 to 50 Hispanic community members.

In Waterbury, over 50 Latinos gathered to voice their community's concerns. “There are so many concerns,” said Mary Restrepo, a participant of Columbian origins, who attended the session. “But something very important to me is the mental health of Latino youth. I don't see that we are paying enough attention to.”

Stephanie Pineda, who is also of Colombian descent, expressed concerns about health and the environment.

"The lack of education in this city, especially regarding litter. I believe there needs to be control; politicians should support the environment as it will have many consequences for us and future generations,” Pineda said.

Reyes anticipates that the initiatives will continue in eight to ten cities, addressing diverse Latino community needs.

Carmen Fernandez, of Puerto Rican origin, said that throughout Waterbury, numerous out-of-state landlords, mainly from New York City, lack consideration for the community,

“These landlords don't listen,” Fernadez said. “Their rents are so high, even for some apartments that are not worth what they ask for.”

Reyes echoed Fernandez’s concerns about housing and funding.

“Housing is the number one issue in the state of Connecticut right now,” he said.

Presently, Connecticut's legislature includes 18 members of Puerto Rican and Latino heritage, all committed to advancing this agenda, Reyes said.

“There are 35,000 Latinos in Waterbury, officially, unofficially, there's probably 40,000, and the needs are many,” he said.

On Jan. 20, elected officials, community leaders, and the public will discuss crucial policies for Connecticut’s growing Latino community at The Latino and Puerto Rican Policy Agenda Summit.

The forum comes in a crucial election year, ahead of the 2024 presidential primaries in Connecticut.

Alan Tan, chairman of the state Commission on Women, Children, Seniors, Equity and Opportunity, emphasized the power of Latino voters and their role in the upcoming elections.

“I believe that people are concerned about their future, and the fact that you see all of these people here today shows that these people are civically engaged,” Tan said. “Regardless of which party you are, you definitely want to listen to the people.”

This story has been updated to reflect that there are 18 Connecticut state lawmakers of Latino heritage, not 80.

Maricarmen Cajahuaringa is a journalist with extensive experience in Latino communities' politics, social issues, and culture. She founded Boceto Media, a digital Spanish-language newspaper based in Connecticut. Maricarmen holds a Bachelor's in Social Work from Springfield College, and a Master's in Journalism and Media Production from Sacred Heart University. As a reporter for Connecticut Public, she is dedicated to delivering accurate and informative coverage of the Hispanic/Latino population in the region. Maricarmen is an experienced and passionate journalist who strives to bring a voice to the stories of her community.