Latino Migration exhibit invites public into Textile Museum

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Tue., Apr. 16, 2013
Joe Diaz plays with his band at a celebration marking the official public opening of the new Latino Migration exhibit at the Windham Textile and History Museum on April 13. Photos by Melanie Savage.
Joe Diaz plays with his band at a celebration marking the official public opening of the new Latino Migration exhibit at the Windham Textile and History Museum on April 13. Photos by Melanie Savage.

As children finished up an activity on the third floor of the Windham Textile and History Museum, hints of a developing celebration began to waft up from the floors below. There was the sound of voices, the smell of chicken stew and rice from Garo’s Place on Main Street in Willimantic, the sound of Latin American folk tunes. “Do you hear that?” asked museum educator Bev York, who was leading a children’s workshop focused on paper and book-making. “They’re having a big celebration for the new exhibit.”

The new exhibit at the Windham Textile and History Museum is the Latino Migration exhibit, established through a collaboration between the museum staff and Eastern Connecticut State University. While there was a limited opening on March 20, the grand opening was scheduled for April 13. The event was open to the public, and was intended to be more than just an opportunity for photographs. By turning the event into a celebration complete with Latino foods, music and dancing, organizers hoped to further the goal of the exhibit - a goal described by Dr. Ricardo Pérez, an associate professor of anthropology at Eastern Connecticut State University and a guest curator for the exhibit, as “to present to the audience the beauty, the diversity and the richness of the Latino community in Willimantic.”

Asked about Joe Diaz, headlining Joe Diaz and Friends, a band performing on the second floor of the museum, Pérez explained that he was not playing a guitar. “No, it’s called a cuatro,” said Pérez. “I’m going to ask Joe to talk a little bit about it. The whole reason for having the music is to introduce a little bit more of the culture, and to educate.”

As he moved through a repertoire of lively, vibrant tunes from a number of different Latin American countries, Diaz would pause to explain the origins of each song, and offer some insight into the instruments on which he and his band mates played. The gourd, or guiro, originates from the Taino people indigenous to Puerto Rico. Scraped by a stiff wire brush, it produced a deep, percussive sound. Though the cuatro, a 10-stringed instrument, is normally associated with religious music, it is actually used in many different genres, explained Diaz. Diaz said that his cuatro, known as the national instrument for Puerto Rico, was made of woods indigenous to the island. The bongos and the conga drums, explained Diaz, reflect the African influence upon Latino culture.

As he launched into another tune, Diaz pinpointed its origins in the farm worker communities from Puerto Rico. When the workers migrated to towns such as Willimantic seeking work, he said, they brought their music, and their instruments, with them.

The Latino Migration exhibit features a series of four videos in addition to a colorful collection of Latino art and artifacts from a number of different countries. 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 Pérez at the March 20 opening. “There’s more awareness of the textile mills than there is regarding the Hartford Poultry Company.”

The remaining videos focus on three different areas: politics, religion and culture.

The dominant focus is on Puerto Rican immigrants, because “they still constitute the largest Latino sub-group in Willimantic,” said Pérez. But the exhibit also touches upon the more recent history of local immigration from countries such as 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,” said Pérez.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, state Rep. Susan Johnson (D-49) presented certificates from the General Assembly to several people associated with the exhibit: Eastern Connecticut State University art professor Imna Arroyo, who loaned many of the artifacts and works of art on display; Pérez; and Jamie Eves, director of the museum.

Speaking in both Spanish and English, Pérez acknowledged the contributions of many members of the local community. There were people who agreed to be interviewed, and “People who were really generous in lending us their artifacts and the other contributions to this exhibit,” said Pérez. “I want to thank them.”

The Latino Migration exhibit will run at the Windham Textile and History Museum through Dec. 8. 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 or 860-465-0191. For more information about the museum, go to

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