Latino Migration exhibit at Windham Textile and History Museum

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Wed., Mar. 27, 2013
Eastern Connecticut State University President Dr. Elsa Nunez, speaks at the Latino Migration exhibit opening on March 19. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Eastern Connecticut State University President Dr. Elsa Nunez, speaks at the Latino Migration exhibit opening on March 19. Photos by Melanie Savage.

The main room of the Windham Textile and History Museum has been literally transformed for the Latino Migration exhibit, which was unveiled during a limited reception on March 20. Colorful, vibrant Latino artwork lines the walls of the large room, accentuated by dark, draped fabric and accent lighting. There are display cases filled with clothing, religious icons and other artifacts. There are flags, representing Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Latin countries, hanging from the ceiling. At four different locations, television screens broadcast interviews with local Latino residents.

One of the videos focuses on stories regarding labor migration. “The Puerto Rican community in 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,” according to a press release. Interviews are conducted with Felipe Silva, who worked in both the Hartford Poultry Company chicken processing plant and the American Thread Company, and with Maria Rivera, a woman who worked at the chicken processing facility.

“I found that not many people know about that aspect of immigration,” said Ricardo Pérez, an associate professor of anthropology at Eastern Connecticut State University and a guest curator for the exhibit. “There’s more awareness of the textile mills than there is regarding the Hartford Poultry Company.”

Pérez said that the remaining four videos focus on three different areas: politics, religion and culture. Interviewees include Leonor Vásquez, who organized the Puerto Rican Awareness Week in 1987; Sofia Cortez-Gómez, who chaired Colectivo Mestizal, a cultural group dedicated to promoting Latino American and Caribbean culture in Eastern Connecticut; Leticia Rodriguez, who volunteers to organize the Cinco de Mayo festival; and Luis Diaz, a retired schoolteacher who talked about the historical significance of race and ethnicity in understanding Puerto Rican culture.

The dominant focus is on Puerto Rican immigrants, because “they still constitute the largest Latino sub-group in Willimantic,” said Pérez, adding that, “through this multi-media presentation, we have also illustrated the recent history of immigration from Mexico, Guatemala, Panama and the Dominican Republic.”

“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,” Pérez said.

Latinos make up approximately 38 percent of the population of Willimantic, according to the 2010 census. “But that number is probably much higher” due to undocumented immigrants, said Pérez. “It’s probably closer to 50 percent.”

Museum Executive Director Jamie Eves, who is also a part-time lecturer in Eastern’s history department, said that he is extremely pleased with the exhibit, which represents a nearly-two-year collaboration between the museum and the university. “I think it’s fantastic,” he said, adding that it's important to focus on a group that makes up such a large portion of the area's population.

The Latino Migration Exhibit is part of a series of ethnic exhibitions by the museum designed to document the histories of immigration to Windham and Willimantic. An exhibit that opened in February of 2011 focused on the history and influence of Polish immigrants. “It takes a long time to put something like this together,” said Eves.

The Latino Migration Exhibit was installed by Roxanne Deojay, interim director of the Akus Gallery at Eastern, and art professor Imna Arroyo, a Puerto Rican artist whose work explores issues of culture and identity. “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… 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.”

The Latino Migration Exhibit will run at the Windham Textile and History Museum through Dec. 8. On April 13, from 2 to 5 p.m., there will be a public reception. On April 20, at 4 p.m., Norma Boujouen will give a keynote address on Latino migration to Willimantic.

Admission to the museum is $7 for adults; $5 for students and seniors; $4 for members of groups; and free for museum and Kids Club members. Guided tours are offered on Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information about the exhibit, contact Pérez at perezr@easternct.edu or 860-465-0191. For more information about the museum, go to www.millmuseum.org.


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