Puerto Ricans from Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, along with policy experts from the island and New York, met in Holyoke, Massachusetts on September 17 to gain a broader understanding of how the island’s economic crisis impacts their local communities.
Due to the island’s fiscal crisis, Puerto Rican population centers in the U.S. have grown significantly in recent years. New England states are no exception. Puerto Ricans now make up more than 80 percent of the Latino population of Hampden County, Massachusetts, which includes the cities of Holyoke and Springfield. In Connecticut, Puerto Ricans represent over 55 percent of the state’s total Latino population.
Over 300 Puerto Ricans from the region and beyond attended the Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans New England Summit, and engaged in discussions on a broad range of topics, from economic development to environmental issues, to media, to political participation, to youth and more.
The summit was co-sponsored by Enlace de Familias, a community group based in Holyoke, and Centro. For the past 21 years, Enlace de Familias has worked for the Puerto Rican community in Holyoke. "We have continuously been organizing, providing services and support to Puerto Ricans coming directly from the Island and the many who are part of the diaspora," Enlace de Familias Executive Director Betty Medina Lichtenstein said. She continued, "The purpose of this summit was to create that safe space where we as Boricuas could speak our truth and narrative. We need to come up with the solutions for those who are here and those who are coming."
“Centro is proud to continue to lend its expertise and provide a space for this important dialogue to happen,” Centro Director Edwin Meléndez added.
At the summit, Meléndez talked about the importance of creating a movement of solidarity among the diaspora, with a focus on the following questions: “How do we create an effective action network? How do we come out of this conference and other events more unified? How do we take this movement to the next level?”
He was joined at the New England summit by 50 panelists representing dozens of Puerto Rican-serving organizations from the area and beyond, along with political leaders from Holyoke and Springfield Massachusetts, Providence, Rhode Island, and Hartford, Connecticut who all pledged to work toward those goals. Check out the program here. The program and event were coordinated by Centro Outreach Coordiantor Gisely Colón López.
Julissa Colón from Holyoke Community College’s Gateway to College program spoke to Voices about what she gained from the conference:
“As a Puerto Rican woman who lives here in the area I think it’s important for us to first understand our history, and also how our history is impacting Puerto Rico today, and how that in turn also affects us the diaspora living on the mainland,” Colón said. “They’re very much connected. There are a lot of things that happens on the island that causes transference here.”
She continued, “This is a place where professionals, community members, teachers and activists can all come together to advocate on behalf of ourselves and our communities. I hope that this happens in many other spaces and many other cities and towns so that we can continue to build bridges between each other to help our own people prosper here and in Puerto Rico.”
Many conference-goers also traveled several hours from outside the area to exchange ideas with other community groups and leaders. Nilda Ruiz came from Philadelphia to participate in the civic engagement panel. “We are eight million strong, and it is so important that we all start organizing as a community so that we can start being heard at the national level and have a more fair relationship with the United States,” Ruiz told Voices. Ruiz is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha, Inc. (APM), a health, human services and community development organization.
The New England Summit is the first in a series of regional summits that will bring together community leaders like Colón and Ruiz, along with politicians, religious leaders, and members of the Puerto Rican diaspora in cities across the United States to create a grassroots diaspora solidarity movement for political and social action. Stay tuned for more information about upcoming conferences.