[Reverb Effect’s theme music, lively and interrogative, plays behind the voice of a narrator, interspersed with historical clips of other voices]
Narrator [a woman’s voice]: How do past voices resonate in the present movement?
Man A: …hear the stories of your parent’s…
Woman A: yeah
Man A: …and your grandparents’ and stuff, so I’m living through them or the stories they told.
Narrator: And how do we make sense of those voices?
Woman B: No, and that’s the story of my life [echo]
Man B: And a case has been made!
Woman B: No I am not trying to void the question, I am trying to clarify the position…
Narrator: What were they trying to say? And whose job is it to find out? This is Reverb Effect.
[Music slowly fades out]
Hannah Roussel: When you hear the word archive what do you envision? Maybe you see the pristine, climate controlled, heavily secured Vatican archive as depicted in the second Da Vinci Code film, Angles and Demons. Or perhaps you recall the scene from The Fellowship of The Ring, where in the depths of a stone castle, the wizard Gandolf frantically sorts through scrolls and loose parchment paper for the diary entry of a past king of Gondor.
Actual archives are not as dramatic as Hollywood depicts–or at least not in the same way. The stories and history they contain can be quite dramatic, and the process of archiving itself can hold intrigue and importance. Historians often find themselves asking: who decides what information gets preserved, and who gets to access it? They also ask a broader question, what counts as an archive? In truth, an archive can be any preservation of historical information. The odds and ends in your grandma’s sewing kit, the verbal stories of an elder in your community, both count as archives.
Scholars of underrepresented and/or oppressed populations often have to get creative when sorting through archives. Sometimes they search for information passed down through the communities they study, other times they read inbetween the lines of documents found in Western, institutionalized archives—what the archives leave out can be more insightful than what they actually contain.
Welcome to Season 4, Episode 1 of Reverb Effect, a podcast brought to you by the University of Michigan’s Department of History. I’m your season producer, Hannah Roussel. In today’s episode we hear from public historian Elena Marie Rosario, a PhD candidate in the University of Michigan’s History Department, who had to get creative when piecing together the history of the first generation of Puerto Ricans who came to Connecticut under Puerto Rico’s Farm Labor Program in the 1950s. In this episode, she focuses on 10 of these farmers, who tried to register to vote in Windsor, Connecticut, in 1956.
There is no archive that holds diaries and journals of these ten men, no heavily controlled vaults that preserve their possessions. Instead, reading inbetween the lines of archival data, primarily old Connecticut newspapers and pamphlets, Elena has succeeded in learning something about what it was like for these early Connecticut Puerto Ricans and to recreate the story of these ten farm workers registering to vote. In doing so, she discovered that they were civically minded participants in their new community from the very beginning.
[“Noir: A Minimalist and Emotive Piano Melody for Relaxation” by Kjartan Abel fades in and then out]
[Sound effect of a 1950s-era airplane taking off]
Elena Rosario: On a warm afternoon in May 1952, an Eastern Airlines flight landed at Bradley Airfield in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. This was the first year Puerto Rico’s Farm Labor Program sent seasonal employees to work in Connecticut’s tobacco fields. Around 200 Puerto Rican men arrived on planes such as this one, in order to work in the thriving agricultural industry. Employers expected the men would return to Puerto Rico at the end of their contracts. But it didn’t work out that way. A few stayed, and many others returned annually, eventually bringing their families with them and settling in the area.
Four years after that first group’s arrival, a dozen or so men registered to vote in an upcoming election at Windsor Town Hall, less than ten miles from the airport. Unfortunately, this early example of civic engagement among Puerto Ricans in Connecticut was not without scandal.
Things got complicated when the Republican Registrar of Voters, Ruth Stewart, protested the registration immediately after the voters were sworn in. Puerto Ricans were American citizens in 1956, just as they are today.
But they did not necessarily have access to full political participation in American politics. Part of this is due to discrimination, structural and institutional racism, and the colonial relationship between the US and Puerto Rico. These same issues and more help explain why many American state and city archives have ignored the history of Puerto Ricans and why tracing their history can be challenging.
[“Noir” plays again, fading in and then out]
To fully grasp the historical significance of the voter registration incident, we must first understand how American colonialism has affected Puerto Ricans. This story begins in 1898 when the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. The United States government hoped to expand itself as a world power, so it targeted Puerto Rico due to its desirable geographical location and agricultural economy. Once the US occupied Puerto Rico, Congress determined that the status of Puerto Rico as “an unorganized territory” through legislation known as the Foraker Act, which replaced US military rule of Puerto Rico with a US appointed civilian government. It also imposed a tariff on goods traveling between the US and Puerto Rico, suggesting that the United States viewed Puerto Rico as a foreign entity, despite US occupation. In 1917, Congress established the Jones Act, which granted Puerto Ricans American citizenship while still treating the island as a foreign nation despite its status as a US territory. American colonialism and the rights to American citizenship continued to shape the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States throughout the twentieth century.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans journeyed to the US mainland for work during and after World War II. While the US faced labor shortages because of the war, Puerto Rico was dealing with overpopulation and poverty. At this time, the Governor of Puerto Rico introduced Operation Bootstrap (or Manos a la Obra), a series of federal projects aimed at shifting Puerto Rico from an agricultural-based economy to an industrial one. One project to help alleviate unemployment on the island that occurred as part of Operation Bootstrap was the Farm Labor Program. It was created to regulate workers and provide employment during the agricultural offseason. Since migrants were already in the US. States working in various industries, the Puerto Rican government decided to take a more active role matching workers to jobs through contracts overseen by the government. It was this program that brought Puerto Rican men to Connecticut in the early 1950s, where they worked for farms who were members of the Shade Tobacco Growers Agricultural Association. This association was established by the largest tobacco growers in the region to oversee farm labor recruitment for the area known as Tobacco Valley. Puerto Rico’s Farm Labor program became the second-largest migrant worker program in the United States after the Bracero Program, which focused on Mexican workers.
[The first few minutes of a clip from “‘Tobacco Valley’” Shade Grown Tobacco & Cigarettes Promo Film Connecticut River Valley XD13304 begins to play. It opens with orchestral music.]
Clip Narrator: This is the Connecticut River Valley USA. A valley which shared in the birth of the nation and which today sits in the background for a most remarkable agricultural enterprise. Tobacco is grown in even the remote corners of the earth. But the story of Tobacco Valley is more than the raising of a crop. This is a story about human progress and a never ending battle with nature. An agricultural development less than half a century old which today produces the finest cigar wrapper tobacco raised in America. Have you ever noticed the smooth brown outside wrapper of a fine cigar? Chances are it was made from the mild and delicately flavored tobacco leaves grown right here in Tobacco Valley. [narrator’s voice begins to fade out] Leaves which wrap eight of every ten cigars smoked in America today.
Elena Rosario: As the industry grew and the demand for shade tobacco increased, Connecticut growers looked for laborers outside the state. The Shade Tobacco Growers Agricultural Association drew on their experiences with other migrants from the Caribbean, such as Jamaicans and Barbadians, to inform their relationship with Puerto Ricans. I found a 1951 pamphlet from the association titled “How to Hire Agricultural Workers from Puerto Rico” at the Windsor Historical Society. Part of this pamphlet’s purpose was to assure its readers that Puerto Rican workers are a part of the American domestic labor force and vetted by the United States Employment Service and the Puerto Rican Department of Labor. Today, we can use this pamphlet to gain a picture of who these Puerto Rican migrant workers were during the early 1950s. Many were men in their early 20s and 30s and heads of their households with dependents back in Puerto Rico. They were recruited from agricultural areas on the island to ensure that they had experience with farm labor, mostly sugar cane and tobacco work. The growers believed that the promise of their patiently awaiting families would draw laborers back to the island after the agricultural season ended. The organization did not intend to keep Puerto Rican workers in Connecticut over the winter. However, there was little they could do to enforce these intentions. While Puerto Rican workers were discouraged from planting roots, their status as American citizens meant they were not deportable when their contracts ended.
[“Noir” fades in and then out]
The number of Puerto Rican residents quickly grew as small communities began to form in Connecticut. In 1950, there were less than 1,500 Puerto Ricans in the state. By 1955, there were almost 12,000. A few hundred lived in the Greater Hartford area. As more and more Puerto Ricans came to work in the agricultural industry, many decided to bring their families and settle in cities and towns forming new communities across the state.
Taking notice of this trend, Puerto Rico’s Migration Division opened a Regional Office in Hartford in 1955. As locals called it, La Oficina worked on the ground to advocate and integrate Puerto Ricans into the area. A weekly report from the Hartford Migration Division mentions that the office distributed pamphlets titled “Use su Derecho a Votar” or “Exercise Your Right to Vote” to local Puerto Ricans. While I was unable to find a copy of this pamphlet in the archives, the simple knowledge that it once existed tells us that Puerto Ricans were invested and active citizens of Connecticut from the very beginning. In addition to La Oficina, community members, advocacy groups, and political organizations also helped Puerto Ricans navigate their new cities and towns. With these forms of assistance and mutual support, Puerto Ricans soon entered their new communities’ political, social, and cultural spaces.
[“Noir” fades in and then out]
This brings us to 1956. On an ordinary Saturday in October, ten Puerto Rican men passed the city of Windsor, Connecticut’s Board of Admission requirements to become registered voters. Only half of the men involved are named in the archives: Miraldo Romano, Santos de Leon, Isadore Vasquez, Isabello V. Orrach, and Angel O. Martinez. Their motivations are unclear as the historical records leave out the voices of these men involved, regardless of whether they were named or not in the newspaper. But we do know this: The matter went to Connecticut Superior Court after both political parties refused to certify their voter registration lists.
During the voters’ swearing-in, Republican Registrar of Voters Ruth Stewart questioned if the Puerto Rican men met the state’s two major voting requirements: 1. pass a literacy test, and 2. live in the state for a year and in the town for six months. Historically, literacy tests have been used to curtail access to voting, especially for black Americans, immigrants, and lower-income folks across the country. Connecticut’s literacy test was signed into law in 1855, creating obstacles to political participation for many marginalized groups. In the mid-1950s, Connecticut was one of twelve states still requiring literacy tests—the state did not ban them until 1970.
It is unclear what specifically occurred after Registrar Stewart raised issues around the voter requirements. In local and state newspapers, accounts of what played out in the town hall diverged mainly along mainstream party lines—Democrats in support of the men’s voter registrations, and Republicans against. These newspapers included little mention of the men whose rights were in question, nor do other documents in the current historical record. Still, we can piece together the events from historical sources that are available to us.
[“Noir” fades in and out]
Word quickly spread about the events that occurred at Windsor Town Hall. Some reports said that Town Clerk George Tudan—a Democrat—asked everyone who was not a member of the Board of Admissions to leave the room. Tudan maintains that this did not happen. Meanwhile, Registrar Stewart claimed Tudan told her to leave the room and registered the men behind closed doors—and the men were all registered with the Democratic party by the time she was allowed back into the room. At that point, Registrar Stewart then went to the chairman of the Republican committee, S. Franklin Bell, to tell her version of events.
[Sounds effects of an old newsroom—men talking indistinctly and keyboards clacking—plays and fades out as Elena resumes her narration.]
A look at state and local newspapers demonstrates the fervor this case was making in the community. This case was in the news for almost four weeks and one article was even republished in the New York Times. Chairman S. Franklin Bell asked both Registrars of Voters for a public hearing to address the controversy. The hearing took place on the afternoon of October 22nd. That morning, before the hearing, the Hartford Times printed Democratic Chairman Frank Monchun’s statement condemning Republicans for the behavior. He accused Republicans of persecuting and disenfranchising Puerto Ricans, and highlighted how questioning Puerto Rican voters threatened the voting rights of all American citizens by stalling the voting list’s certification process.
Moreover, Monchun stated, “you cannot accept from the Porto [Puerto] Ricans the profit from their labors, their service in the Armed Forces, their American birth, their participation in our church affairs and services, and then deny them the right to vote because they refuse to register as Republicans.”
This same issue of the Hartford Times included a front-page report by Town Clerk Tudan. He alleged he was the only member of the Board of Admissions not subpoenaed to attend the public hearing that day. Since he did not get his day in court, he aired his side of the story in a local paper. Tudan, a Democrat, feared others would smear his public record without his testimony at the meeting. He claimed the Republican selectman stood next to him during the registration process and that his doors were open the entire time.
In an article in the Hartford Courant, issued that same day, Democratic representatives implied that no one took issue with the Puerto Ricans’ registration until they wanted to become members of the Democratic party. However in another article from the Courant a few days later, the Republicans stated they raised questions from the beginning of the registration process. Either way, if Puerto Ricans became a new voting body in the community and were primarily registering with the Democratic party, their presence could threaten to destabilize the political balance in this small Connecticut town.
[Indistinct voices talk in a large, echoey hall, fading out at Elean resumes her narration]
On the afternoon of October 22, 1956, over 200 people squeezed into a meeting room at Windsor Town Hall, filling every seat and standing in aisles for the public hearing. Newspaper articles summarizing these events tell us that the Puerto Rican men whose voting rights, literacy, and residency status were in question were issued subpoenas to attend the event. Still, none of them participated in the hearing. Democratic Attorney Charles Mahoney proclaimed Republicans did not have the right to issue subpoenas to the Puerto Ricans in the first place because of questions about who should hear the case. While the state law allowed town registrars the authority to determine the eligibility of voters, if they did not agree, the superior court had jurisdiction. Thus, the Republican lawyers had no right to issue subpoenas to Puerto Ricans in the first place. So why should they comply?
A several-minute-long, heated argument ensued over the legality of this statute, ending only when Democratic Registrar Marie Hanson and Chairman Monchun stormed out. The hearing continued—Republican Attorney Alcorn presented his evidence and promised spectators he would take the case to the Connecticut Superior court. After ninety more minutes of hotly contested debate, the meeting ended, well after nightfall.
[Indistinct arguing voices fades in and then out]
The following morning, Democratic leaders called Republicans to meet and discuss matters without the public. It seems that the Republicans did not agree, because a few days later, Republican Attorney H. Meade Alcorn filed an action accusing the Democratic Registrar Hansen of abusing her powers and breaching her duty to the public when she registered the Puerto Rican voters. The suit also asked Puerto Rican men to be removed from the voting lists and for the court to order Registrar Hansen to certify the First District Voting list. The Democrats responded by filing a countersuit asking Republican Registrar Stewart to approve the voting lists with the names of the Puerto Ricans on them. Ultimately, both registrars refused to comply with the other party’s request, stalling the certification process—which meant that the entire town was in danger of not being able to vote in the next election. A Hartford Courant reporter would later describe these events as a threat to “Some 2,700 Windsor residents, who faced the loss of their right to vote because of a controversy over the registration of 10 Puerto Rican farmworkers.”
The next day, on October 26, Judge Frank J. Covello of the Connecticut Superior Court heard the case in Hartford, just a few miles away from Windsor. The judge ruled that three of the ten men passed all the requirements to vote. Of the remaining seven, five men did not make the one-year residency requirement, one could not pass the literacy test, and the last one did not appear in front of the judge.
A headline on the front page of Windsor’s News-Weekly paper read, “Guilty as Charged … In 7 Out of 10 Cases.” The writer provided reasons why Republicans had the right to protest the registration of the Puerto Rican men. The article implied that Democrats were “guilty as charged” of registering unqualified voters. Although, the article did not mention the three men who made the certified lists or the two who were eligible to quickly re-register when they reached the residency requirement, it did mention that about 200 Puerto Ricans currently lived in Windsor. It was not out of a desire to advocate for them. Instead, the newspaper framed Puerto Rican’s presence in the town as a threat to the political order, noting, “The position of the Republicans was that if the Democrats got away with 10, they might attempt to admit the 200 Puerto Ricans.”
[“Noir” plays and then fades out]
While much of the historical record leaves out the voices of the Puerto Rican men being questioned, a close reading of the available material shows that Puerto Rican tobacco workers were invested in civically participating in their new communities from the start. For example, drawing on extensive research in local and state newspapers including the News-Weekly, the Hartford Times, and the Hartford Courant, I am able to tell these men’s stories, archiving it in this podcast. The News-Weekly, a Windsor based paper is in print at the Windsor Historical Society along with the Shade Tobacco Growers Agricultural Association Records. The other papers were found at the Hartford History Center, located at the Hartford Public Library.
At the same time, these sources focus on how people in positions of power understood the event. The newspapers have no quotes from any of the Puerto Rican men involved. Rather, the recorders of this history were almost entirely focused on how Puerto Rican voters would help or hinder the town’s two major political parties, with zero attention given to the experiences of the men themselves. Since only five of the men were named in the paper, we can’t even know which three of the men passed the registrations requirement at the Connecticut Superior Court. Unfortunately, these kinds of gaps and silences are common in archival records. Archives often reflect the views of the people and institutions who create them. Moreover, they support the needs of those who maintain them. This is why it is important to add new voices to established archives and to create and locate archives on people, places, and things that have been understudied.
[“Noir” fades in and then out]
Hannah: Thanks for listening, and a special thank you to our episode producer, public historian Elena Marie Rosario. Elena is a PhD candidate in the History Department at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on Puerto Rican migration and settlement in twentieth-century Connecticut. Elena’s work joins historical and public humanities methodologies to center Puerto Ricans in local and state history. Her public history dissertation, “Puerto Rican Tobacco Migration, Postwar Settlement, and Community Development in Hartford, Connecticut, 1947-1973,” documents the history of Puerto Ricans in the city and produces material that makes Puerto Rican stories publicly accessible. Elena works with the community through oral interviews, curriculum writing, teacher professional development, and other publicly engaged projects.
Our editorial board is Kira Thurman, David Tamayo, Jeffrey Veidlinger, Pragya Kaul, Paige Newhouse, Sophie Wunderlich, and Hannah Tweet. Gregory Parker is our executive producer, and I’m your season producer and host, Hannah Roussel. I hope you’ll join us for our next episode, for more stories about how the past reverberates in the present.
This is Reverb Effect.
[Reverb Effect theme music plays and fades out]
Selected Bibliography and Additional Sources
Glasser, Ruth. “Tobacco Valley: Puerto Rican Farm Workers in Connecticut.” Hog River Journal 1, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 26-31. https://www.ctexplored.org/tobacco-valley-puerto-rican-farm-workers-in-connecticut/
Meléndez, Edgardo. “Colonialism, Citizenship, and Contemporary Statehood.” In Colonial Dilemma: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Puerto Rico, edited by Edwin Melendez and Edgardo Melendez. Boston: South End, 1993.
Hallas, Herbert C. A History for Windsor 1944-1962: As Seen Through the Pages of The News-Weekly. Farmingdale: Rivulet Ferry Press, 2018.
Thornton, Steve. “Literacy Tests and the Right To Vote.” ConnecticutHistory.org, September 15, 2022. https://connecticuthistory.org/literacy-tests-and-the-right-to-vote/
“Windsor Tobacco: Made in the Shade.” ConnecticutHistory.org, August 22, 2019. https://connecticuthistory.org/windsor-tobacco-made-in-the-shade/