A tireless supporter of Puerto Rican culture and education, Maria Colón Sánchez became a leading community organizer in Hartford and was known as la madrina (the godmother) of the capital city’s Puerto Rican community. Respected by colleagues and by her community, Colón Sánchez successfully advocated for bilingual education in Hartford schools and served on the Hartford Board of Education. She founded the Puerto Rican Parade Committee in 1964 (a parade that the Latino community still celebrates each year in Hartford). In the late 1980s, after a hard-fought battle, she became the first Latina elected to the Connecticut General Assembly.
One Migrant’s Journey
Maria Clemencia Colón Sánchez was born in 1926 in Comerio, Puerto Rico. The mid-20th century brought political and economic problems to the small Caribbean island and, with scores of others in the 1950s, Maria left to pursue a new life. At only 28 years old, she left behind her parents and five siblings and headed to Hartford where she lived with an aunt. With only an 8th grade education, she worked various jobs, including laboring in Connecticut’s tobacco fields, to earn money for herself and her family back home. Maria’s first years in Hartford were good ones. Within a short time, she opened her own business, Maria’s News Stand, on Albany Avenue. More than an entrepreneur, she also became involved in the city’s political activities. By the late 1950s, Hartford’s growing Puerto Rican population had grown increasingly frustrated with a city government that overlooked or inadequately addressed their issues and concerns. Throughout the late 1950s and into the ’60s, Sánchez’s store served as a place for community members to meet and discuss their future and equality as a people within the city. As a central figure in the discussions, Maria helped solidify the community. In 1965 she helped found the political organization Puerto Rican Democrats of Hartford, for which she was also treasurer, and in 1967 she organized the Spanish Action Coalition.
Political Advocacy in Time of Unrest
Colón Sánchez and others in Hartford’s Puerto Rican community continued to fight for their voice even as tensions with neighboring groups rose. In August of 1969 a bar brawl between Puerto Ricans and French Canadians began what would come to be known as the Comanchero riot. This incident stirred the city’s already uneasy race relations but ultimately provided a platform for political action. Colón Sánchez acted as an intermediary and opened communications with the community, city council, and police. Citizens aired complaints of unreasonable searches and arrests, but police continued to take aggressive actions to disperse gatherings of community members in the days that followed. The uneasy peace did not hold. A series of incidents in the city’s African American neighborhoods, including the police shooting of a 16-year-old boy and a Hartford Times article in which a fireman demeaned Puerto Ricans by referring to them as “pigs,” ignited new protests in both communities. The protests, which devolved into violence and are now known as the Labor Day riots, brought long simmering grievances to the surface. Colón Sánchez continued to call for attention to the underlying issues. As the 1960s, an era of civil protest and social unrest in urban centers across the country, came to a close, Hartford’s Puerto Rican community had won attention for its concerns from elected officials as well as from the mainstream media.
A New Decade
By the 1970s, Colón Sánchez increasingly represented the Puerto Rican community’s interests to outside groups and became more involved in public affairs. In 1971, she and University of Hartford professor Perry Alan Zirkel collaborated on the creation of Teacher Corps. The program promoted improved education for students who spoke Spanish as their primary language by hiring bilingual teachers who could better communicate with and assist their students. In 1972, with the help of educator and community organizer Edna Negron Rosario, Colón Sánchez continued to fight for bilingual education in Hartford schools and helped open La Escuelita, Connecticut’s first bilingual school.
Puerto Rican Candidates Win Public Office
In 1973, Colón Sánchez became the first Puerto Rican elected to public office in Hartford. She ran for a seat on the Board of Education and with the help of the Puerto Rican community, the Democratic Party, and the Campaign Committee of the Bilingual Task Force, she won that seat. In 1978, she won a lawsuit mandating Hartford public schools adopt bilingual education. In 1979, Colón Sánchez ran for a seat on the City Council. While many supported her campaign, she was not elected to serve. That honor went to Mildred Torres, who, in 1979, became the first Puerto Rican to serve on Hartford’s city council. While Colón Sánchez continued to fight for the Puerto Rican community throughout the years, difficulties often arose. In 1988, for example, Hartford politician Abe Giles managed to have Maria removed from the Democratic Town Committee. Having served for 20 years, she felt betrayed. In retaliation, she ran against Giles in the primary for state representative. She won the 1988 primary and subsequently the election. Maria Colón Sánchez was one of the first Puerto Ricans—and the first Latina—to win a seat in the Connecticut General Assembly. A year later, in 1989, she was found dead in her apartment of a heart attack. Maria Clemencia Colón Sánchez left behind a legacy of activism for the Latino community and of civic improvement for all Hartford residents. Not only did she revolutionize bilingual education in public schools and help open up Hartford politics to a broader constituency, she empowered the city’s Puerto Rican community. In 1993 the Maria C. Colón Sánchez Elementary School opened in the Frog Hollow section of the city, and Williams Street was dedicated as Maria Colón Sánchez Way. Also in 1993, the Hartford Public Library placed a star on its Walk of Fame to commemorate Colón Sánchez as one whose “efforts have enhanced Hartford’s rich civic and cultural life.” In 1994, she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.