Nov 8, 2013
01:44 PM
Arts & Entertainment

Windham Textile & History Museum's Latino Migration Exhibit Charts An Important Legacy

Windham Textile & History Museum's Latino Migration Exhibit Charts An Important Legacy

A worker at the Hartford Poultry Co. plant.

You've got exactly one more month to catch the fascinating Latino Migration Exhibit currently on display at Willimantic's Windham Textile & History Museum. Guest curated by Ricardo Pérez, associate professor of anthropology at Eastern Connecticut State University, the show documents and celebrates the history of immigration from Latin America to Willimantic—and the development of the resulting Latin-American community from the mid-20th century to the present—through a multimedia presentation of four main themes: labor migration, politics, religion and culture. A series of documentary-style videos introduce visitors to each theme (and can also be found on the museum's website); photos, artworks and artifacts related to these themes have largely been donated by the town's residents.

While Connecticut's overall Latino population hovers around 480,000—or 13 percent—Willimantic's population is currently 40 percent Latino. Encouraged by their American citizenship status, the post World War II economic boom and the rapid expansion of commercial air traffic, the first immigrants to arrive in the 1950s were Puerto Ricans. They were particularly drawn to Willimantic because of active labor recruitment by the two major employers then in town, the Hartford Poultry Co. (HPC) and American Thread Co. (ATCO), the current site of the textile museum. Both companies relied heavily on immigrant labor until they went out of business (HPC in 1972, ATCO in 1985), but by the mid-1980s a new employer, Franklin Mushroom Farm, had begun capitalizing on the influx of Mexicans and Guatemalans to the area. Citing the high cost of energy, that company would move out of state in 2006, which resulted in the layoff of nearly 400 workers.

The first-person testimony, archival photographs and documents that illustrate this history are intriguing, but not nearly as striking as the displays that illustrate the cultural preoccupations of Willimantic's Latinos, and the impact they've tried to make on the surrounding community. Politically, it's been a long struggle to get out the Latino vote (as of 1983, there were only 463 voters registered) and to earn representation on the committees controlling local affairs: Right now, there's only one Latino representative out of 11 serving on Willimantic's town council and one of nine on the school board. Some powerful artwork serves to underline the limits of Latino power: Valentin Tirado's oil of the Willimantic Frog Bridge—which was auctioned off to raise funds for North Windham Elementary School, heavily populated by Latino children—and Pable Salas-Blanco's painting symbolizing the dreams and hopes of Connecticut's Mexicans (in which the strong Aztec sun is compromised by the U.S. moon and an American eagle intimidates its Mexican counterpart).

There's also plenty of beauty, joy and pride on display, especially in the colorful molas made by the Kuna Yala Indians of Columbia and Panamá, and the artifacts highlighting the significance of religion and religious beliefs to Latino immigrants, includng several representations of Mexico's Virgin of Guadalupe and artworks revealing the complexity of Santeriá, a belief system with strong African influence. The celebration of significant secular events, such as Mexico's Cinco de Mayo, is also given major play—in the last two years, Willimantic's Jillson Square has hosted a townwide procession and festival on that date—as are cultural traditions like Puerto Rico's La Bomba and jibaro.

Much care has been taken in the annotation (both English and Spanish) and presentation of this exhibit, which makes effective use of limited space and was clearly planned over in a manner unusual for most small, budget-limited Connecticut museums. The only downside is that this museum is open on such a limited basis (Fri. thru Sun., 10-4, and by appointment). A suggestion: if you go, visit not only the Latino exhibit but the eeriely parallel Textile & History Museum's permanent exhibit, which preserves and interprets the history of textiles, textile arts and the textile industry in Connecticut and beyond from the Colonial period to the present. You'll love the collection of antique sewing machines and the totally Dickensian contrast between the representation of both the 19th-century mill manager's home and that of the typical worker.

For more information, call (860) 456-2178 or visit millmuseum.org.

Windham Textile & History Museum's Latino Migration Exhibit Charts An Important Legacy

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