New London project tells story of Hispanic women
New London — For Resurrección Espinosa-Frink, the portraits and accompanying stories of Hispanic women in New London County she compiled in 1989 can in some ways be used as a guide.
“Have things changed? Have we learned from these people?” she said Saturday.
Espinosa-Frink was on hand at the New London Historical Society’s Shaw Mansion for the opening of the newly installed exhibit called "Pioneers: Photographs and Oral Histories of Hispanic Women in New London County, 1989." It is a collection of 15 portraits and personal stories — transcribed in English and Spanish — that provide a snapshot into society at the time.
The exhibit will be on display permanently at the Shaw Mansion at 11 Blinman St. The mansion currently is open to the public Thursdays and Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Espinosa-Frink completed the project with support from Connecticut College and the nonprofit Centro de la Comunidad in part to dispel some myths or “fake news” about the Hispanic residents at the time.
Each woman profiled, she said, talked about “what they thought was relevant to introduce her family to a society that was often insensitive to their hardships.”
The collection has been an exhibit at Yale University and galleries in Providence, Boston and at Connecticut College. She said it was first displayed at Centro de la Comunidad in New London and she is happy to have it back home in the city.
The stories span generations of Hispanic women from different backgrounds, how they were received in the communities where they lived and their stories of hardship, racism and resiliency.
Milagros Guzmán, born in Añasco, Puerto Rico, in 1920: “I arrived in New London in 1949. The man who would later become my husband lived here with his mother and sister and as far as I remember, they were the only Hispanics in town ... Life was hard. No one would rent us an apartment. A woman who was renting showed us one, and I was delighted ... When the lady saw my husband, who is dark, she said that the apartment was taken. I remember there was a Lebanese family that rented us an apartment afterwards — I think because they had gone through the same type of thing.”
Espinosa-Frink said the Hispanic population in New London County has grown dramatically over the past few decades but prejudice remains.
“I think that our society will not really thrive until we all come together through respect,” she said. “Is this still relevant today? I say yes because I live through the things these women are talking about.”
Espinosa-Frink, who was born in Spain, relayed several stories of prejudice, including a recent trip to Norwich from New London on the bus. She noticed the ride was free that day.
“I turned to the driver and said isn’t it nice that the ride is free. He threw his cigarette and said, ‘Woman, there ain’t nothing free in this country. The hardworking taxpayers are paying for your free ride,’” she said.
“Imagine if I was a person trying to make a life here and dependent on the bus. I would be heartbroken,” she said.
In another recent incident at a supermarket, Espinosa-Frink said there was a Puerto Rican family having a conversation in Spanish over which type of cookies to buy. She said the man in front of her became enraged because of the Spanish and turned to her to ask if she could believe it. She did not respond.
“These type of things tell us something about what this man expected from me as a white woman: I was going to not like the fact that someone was speaking Spanish. That is very disturbing,” she said.
Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, spoke at Saturday’s opening, and said the narratives are sobering and not dissimilar to stories she hears from people who are homeless: loss of work, difficulty navigating an unfamiliar culture, health challenges and trouble keeping food on the table.
She said the stories highlight “the wound of feeling apart, of experiencing discrimination and of feeling ignored and invisible.”
She said the lesson that can be learned is to listen and learn and “to celebrate where there is some evidence of change.”
Espinosa-Frink is an educator, author and poet who has taught at Connecticut College, University of Rhode Island and New Haven Public Schools. She is the author of "Hand: Bank Street on Stage," and founding director of Teatro Latino de New London. She is the coordinator for Bank Street Blues Bilingual and a Master Teaching Artist with the Connecticut Office of the Arts.
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