People of Hispanic descent make up over one third of the population of Springfield and that number is steadily growing. Over 60% of students in the Springfield public schools are Hispanic. There may be debates among leaders in the business community as to whether or not the city should embrace its “hispanidad”, but the only debate ought to be focused on how to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.
Puerto Rico is an island of contrasts and contradictions; with twice the average income of the next richest Caribbean island its average income is half that of the poorest state; Puerto Ricans are fully citizens of the United States of America, pay no federal income taxes, have no voting representation in congress, but their young men must register with selective service; the island’s European colonization began over one hundred years before the English arrived in the New World, but its political connection to Washington D.C. is as as recent as any major American territory.
Whether accurate or not, the perception of New Englanders is that Puerto Ricans won’t learn English and refuse to assimilate. The interesting question there is… assimilate to what? Puerto Ricans aren’t immigrants, they’re moving from one part of their country to another part of their country…so they must change from being Americans, to being Americans? I can see making demands of non-citizens for the privileges of residency and citizenship, but why would citizens be expected to make wholesale changes to their cultural tradition of 400 years when, apparently, it was just that culture the United States was eager to incorporate into itself in the War with Spain?
In my experience fewer and fewer young Hispanics in Springfield speak Spanish as comfortably as they speak English and, sadly, most of them are as ignorant of what their Hispanic heritage entails as their neighbors. There are even Puerto Ricans who believe that the Spanish they do speak is only some sort of dialect of Spanish that would be unintelligible to Spaniards, in truth, Caribbean Spanish is no more distinct than any other regional variant of Spanish. Also, the cultures of both Spain and Puerto Rico have a particularly rich urban heritage, San Juan is the second oldest capital city in the New World and is clearly the cultural descendant of great cities such as Seville, Granada, Barcelona, Toledo, and, the oldest of all Western European cities: Cádiz.
Puerto Ricans have brought with them many traditions which can be utilized to energize the city of Springfield. First among them the culture of being outside, on the street and in the plaza; walking to get from place to place in traditional gridded streets is the norm. The tradition of home ownership may make Puerto Ricans the perfect match for the City of Homes. That many Puerto Ricans who choose to come to New England have left more rural areas can bring with it an understanding of agriculture which is waning here.
What is missing is a place in the heart of the city for Puerto Ricans to both feel at home and feel pride in their culture. As ubiquitous as Hispanic people are in the city, their cultural center is still isolated in the ghettoized North End, hidden from most residents and wallowing in poverty. An area in the downtown highlighting the best of Puerto Rican culture with high end restaurants, shops, and music venues would highlight to people of other cultural backgrounds just how rich the culture of the Spanish speaking world can be, not limiting it to the Caribbean, but expanding it to include all the best from Tierra de Fuego to Iberia making it a link to the cultures of the most widely spoken language in the Western Hemisphere.
The Latin connection to the cultural legacy of Italy and the story of its immigrants to the United States should be both instructive and inspirational. Italians too were stereotyped as criminals but also faced anti-papist sentiments which no longer exist by and large. For many in the city now in fact, including this incredibly “waspy” writer, it is the Italian South End of the city which embodies its best urbanity and the core of what remains of the best of its culture.
Springfield and its Hispanic residents will rise or fall together. Any attempt to make a successful city while excluding them will fail just based on the demographic arc which has been in place for the last 40 years. There are some who would have preferred to see the city depopulated, much like Detroit or Scranton, rather than have it populated with the people who have arrived since the White/English speaking population began to leave. While I disagree with that, I would admit that there are challenges. The tradition of public education and its importance simply isn’t as strong in the Caribbean culture as it has been in overall in Massachusetts and this must change if the city is to thrive. Springfield’s huge school age population, larger than any other city in New England save only Boston, holds a great deal of our future. If the best of those students are made to feel that this old New England city both welcomes them and has the potential to be a platform on which they can build a successful future, then they will stay in the city and make it the envy of the region. If the best and brightest see little hope and are made to feel that they have no reason to feel at home here, then they will leave, and only those with little ambition and ability will remain.