Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, A Talk by Felix Arroyo
“America is already great, because people connect with each other, support each other, and look for a way to live together.” -Felix D. Arroyo (pictured above)
The Welcome Project celebrated Hispanic heritage month in October by hosting Latin Night, an evening of art and civic engagement. The night’s highlight was when Felix Arroyo, Register of Suffolk Probate and Family court, gave a talk about what it means to him to celebrate Hispanic heritage month.
Arroyo currently serves as the Register of Probate and Family court of Suffolk county, a position that has been elected since the 1650s, making it one of the first elected positions in the history of Massachusetts. However, Arroyo, originally from Puerto Rico, is the first Latino and person of color elected as register. Arroyo notes how there is something wrong with this picture given the fact that the 2010 census reported Latinos as twenty percent of the population of Massachusetts.
Although there may be a historical lack of Hispanic/Latino representation in county court, there is a deep history of resisting and organizing among the Latino community in the Boston area. Felix Arroyo started his career as a community leader in Vila Victoria, a Puerto Rican community in South Boston, after he graduated with a degree in education from Harvard in the late 70’s. Arroyo sees Vila Victoria as an important example for the power of inter-community organizing in empowering the Latino population in Boston.
The Puerto Rican community settled in the South end primarily between Tremont and Washington Streets, an area that was still underdeveloped and affordable to live for newly arrived immigrants. However, in the 1950’s, the Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) started an urban renewal plan including the development of the South End for which they put out a call for developer’s proposals. To their surprise, the Puerto Rican community, who feared losing their homes, organized as what is known today as, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (iba), and decided to submit their own proposal.
The proposal was constructed with the help of local churches, student organizers and student architects. Arroyo notes that after presenting the proposal, “everyone knew what they [the BRA] were thinking... ‘these people who don’t know English, are submitting to us a proposal for development of a set of buildings in the South End.’” But contrary to what most thought, the BRA found the development plan feasible, although they did not understand where the funding would come for this development. Again, with the help of the community, those leading the development plan were able to secure funding from Jewish investors in New York. Eventually, the city passed the plan and the development, Vila Victoria, was officially named after the victory of a “struggle by a group of Puerto Ricans who didn’t know how to read and write but knew how to defend themselves.”
The establishment of Vila Victoria allowed for the development of assistance programs like the one Arroyo joined, Casa Del Sol Learning Center, for members of the neighborhood. Casa Del Sol started when nuns in Vila Victoria had the women from the community meet with them for coffee or tea after mass. Through these meetings, the women began to tell the nuns that they wished to read and write in Spanish. In response, the nuns contracted one of the women in the community that had a high school diploma, trained her, and had her teach literacy classes. About ten of those women learned to read and write Spanish and quickly realized they could learn, and could get a high school degree. The center continued to develop classes in Math and English and soon enough, many of the women in the community were gaining high school diplomas and even college degrees.
Arroyo joined the Casa Del Sol at a critical time when the nuns who had been running it decided they needed to hire a program manager who could run the programs while they worked on securing more funding. Arroyo’s involvement in this community led him to experience first-hand “how a community from the grassroots, came together and moved forward to where things are not possible, but they made it possible.” Arroyo stressed that it was the efforts of people from all heritages, not only Puerto Rican, that made Vila Victoria and the subsequent programs possible. He emphasized that, “we as Latin Americans look to you, who are not from our heritage, but are sympathetic to our causes. Latinos will not grow by themselves.”
For Arroyo, it is critical now, more than ever, to continue to build community and remember the important history of resistance within the Latino community in Boston. The story of Vila Victoria is a crucial example of the power of community efforts that involve all kinds of people with different expertise. This example is extremely relevant given current community efforts in negotiations regarding the redevelopment in Union sq. and the emergence of Somerville as a sanctuary city.
Overall, as we look towards the coming months, we should never forget, as Arroyo puts it, “the ability of people from different heritages to contribute to the common good and be able to connect with each other in a way that advances not only them, but the rest of us.That’s what happens when we celebrate each other. That’s what it means to celebrate a Hispanic month for me.”
For more history on Vila Victoria visit this link.