Connecting with Puerto Rican culture

Students engage with local community, history, and more

By Kathy Andrews

A trained anthropological archaeologist focused on Puerto Rican history and culture, Amanda Guzmán specializes in museum anthropology, describing her field as “a bit of detective work on museum collections—reconstructing the histories of how objects came to be at museums.”

Amanda Guzmán, assistant professor of anthropology
Amanda Guzmán, assistant professor of anthropology

When the newly named assistant professor of anthropology set out to develop a course to examine traditional and contemporary views of Puerto Rican culture, her goals were to introduce students to a wide breadth of Puerto Rican scholarship, to weave in the story of Hartford’s Puerto Rican diaspora, and to include ways for students to engage with the community. Also, because she planned to teach the class remotely, she envisioned a live, virtual speaker series featuring historians, archeologists, and museum curators and educators. Each lecture would be recorded and then posted online to create what she describes as “an archive of Puerto Rican thought.”

Guzmán’s spring 2021 Community Learning course, “Beyond Traditional: Contemporary Understandings of Puerto Rican Culture,” met all of her goals. The online archive showcases guest lecturers of wide-ranging expertise, including from Smithsonian Institution museums and from The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The recorded talks have an intimate feel; since the speakers represented many institutions that were closed due to the pandemic, they Zoomed in from home offices. Each talk was followed by Q&A, though only the lecture portion was recorded.

“What I always attempt to do in my classes is empower students to not only learn but also to teach and to be active participants in their learning and in the learning of others,” says Guzmán.

Among students enrolled in the class were several who grew up as Connecticut residents and were surprised to learn that their home state has the largest percentage of Puerto Rican residents of any U.S. state. They wondered why that aspect of Connecticut history had never been mentioned in their high school classes. Enter historian and Hartford native Elena Rosario, one of nine guest speakers who brought Puerto Rican history and culture to life and described different waves of migration, from the 1950s to those of more recent years, including after Hurricane Maria.

people looking at old images
Ray Alvarez-Adorno ’23, right, works with historian and Hartford native Elena Rosario and Jasmin Agosto ’10, education and community outreach manager at the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library (HPL), in the center. Photo by Nick Caito.

Rosario discussed her research, which focuses on post-World War II Puerto Rican migration and settlement in Hartford, capturing students’ attention with archival photographs, newspaper reports, and other documentation. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Michigan, Rosario detailed how Operation Bootstrap, an economic strategy in 1950s–1960s Puerto Rico, led to the mass migration of Puerto Ricans, with thousands eventually settling in Connecticut. As the island’s traditional farming economy shifted to manufacturing, many male heads of households were recruited for agricultural work in Connecticut, particularly at tobacco farms. While permanent settlement was not intended originally, Rosario says, community networks and cultural events such as the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade grew over time and remain strong in Hartford today.

Neuroscience major Alicia Camuy ’22 says the course, and Rosario’s talk in particular, made an impact on her. Camuy, who is from Chicago, was inspired by the class discussion to ask her great-aunts about her family’s roots in Puerto Rico. She says she was amazed to learn that her grandfather, when he migrated to the U.S. mainland, came first to Hartford, living and doing agricultural work in the area before eventually settling in Chicago. “Before taking this class, I had no idea of my family connection here,” says Camuy. “It’s given me a sort of window, walking through my grandfather’s footsteps, trying to figure out what his life was like in Hartford during the 1970s.”

Family stories like Camuy’s are an important part of Rosario’s research. “Stories of Puerto Ricans rarely make it into the archives,” says Rosario. “Who better to tell those stories than the people who lived those experiences?” Rosario, as well as the other guest speakers, talked with students about a key course theme, the idea of a scholar’s positionality, essentially the stance of the researcher or the student in relation to the subject of study. She notes that her own positionality as a Puerto Rican woman in Connecticut “shapes the relationships that I build in the field, the questions that I pose, the way that I read my sources, and so on.”

Poster by Carolina Villasenor ’22

Guzmán, who joined the Trinity faculty in 2020 as Ann Plato Fellow in Anthropology and American Studies, says she was excited to hear of the extensive work that alumna Jasmin Agosto ’10, education and community outreach manager at the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library (HPL), has done to gather and share stories of Hartford’s Puerto Rican community, including oral history interviews of historical changemakers of the Puerto Rican diaspora. In fall 2020, Guzmán began meeting with Agosto to learn more about the Hartford community and Agosto’s work. A new HPL community archiving initiative that Agosto described seemed a perfect opportunity for collaboration—student involvement would enhance the “Beyond Traditional” course as well as advance the HPL initiative. 

The community archiving initiative was planned to launch in conjunction with the opening of the Park Street Library @ the Lyric, a new state-of-the-art building that was set to open in early fall 2021 at Park and Broad Streets. Agosto says plans for the new HPL location, which replaces a longtime Park Street storefront branch, include “a memory booth, where people can tell their stories within this neighborhood and share their visions for the future.” In addition to audio-recording stories, people can bring photographs to be captured digitally. Says Guzmán, “Collaborating on this project allowed us both to leverage parallels in our work—Jasmin with oral history interviews and me with my interest in digital humanities for research and teaching contexts for this first iteration of the course.”

Poster by Chris Cooper ’23

Members of Guzmán’s class, for their final projects, were tasked with creating a portfolio of community engagement documents for the HPL staff’s review and potential use. Students chose from different final assignment options, including drafting survey questions to be posed to community members and designing promotional ads to promote the memory booth via social media.

During the summer, three Trinity students made further contributions to the project. Ray Alvarez-Adorno ’23, who was part of the “Beyond Traditional” class, extended his work on the community archiving initiative as a participant in Trinity’s Public Humanities Collaborative. Kendall Alexander ’22 and Isabelle Sayas ’23 served as anthropology research assistants. With Guzmán as faculty partner and Agosto and Rosario as community partners, the three students were involved in various ways, including researching local sites of interest for potential inclusion in the project and exploring different digital storytelling platforms for use in the initiative.

Ray Alvarez-Adorno ’23, a student in the “Beyond Traditional: Contemporary Understandings of Puerto Rican Culture”
course. Photo by Nick Caito.

Guzmán notes that a key lesson for students in the course was understanding that in studying Puerto Rico, “you’re really studying an unfolding history of multiple places because the diaspora is such a big part of cultural production and because Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, which people don’t often learn stateside. It was really important to recognize that history of connection into our present, because after Hurricane Maria, there was significant migration from Puerto Rico to the U.S. mainland, and so we were studying both a historical migration as well as a contemporary migration defined by renewed diasporic mobilization in more recent years.”

Guzmán says that when she next teaches the course again in spring 2022, when Trinity’s classes should be fully in person, she still would like to invite at least some new speakers to participate via Zoom. “It actually made me realize how connected we can be, even while apart. And the biggest feedback I got from the speakers was that they were just so impressed with the students.”

To watch the speaker series, please visit the archive.