Return to Interviews with Latino Leaders in Hartford

Fernando Betancourt – Exec. Dir. – Latino Puerto Rican Affairs Commission

Slideshow Presentation

Fernando Betancourt was born and raised in Santurce, Puerto Rico. While in Puerto Rico, he was a member of the Puerto Rican Independence Party. Betancourt graduated with a Political Science degree and then attended law school at the University of Puerto Rico where he was president of the student council. At twenty-eight-years-old, Betancourt immigrated to the United States in 1987. After attending a graduate school in Hartford, he received a Certificate of Management to organize non-profit groups. As a result, he has both urban and governmental career backgrounds. For example, in New Haven, he was the director of the National Educational Service Center as part of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a Human Resources administrator and head program director managing AIDS/HIV for the city. He is also a consultant on health, education, culture, politics and diversity. In conclusion, he shares his expertise by speaking at Yale, Trinity College, University of Connecticut, Southern Connecticut State University, Manchester and Capitol Community Colleges.

Many important topics regarding the Latino community in Connecticut were discussed during the interview with Mr. Betancourt. When asked whether LPRAC had taken a stand regarding “English Only” programs in Hartford Public Schools, Betancourt replied that the Commission has always opposed such initiatives. He personally mentioned that he is a strong proponent of bilingual education. However, he also believes that there needs to be more communication between himself, the Mayor of Hartford, Eddie Perez, and Hartford’s Board of Education Superintendent, Steven Adamowski, to cater Hartford’s academic curriculum to bilingual students so that “no child would be left behind.” The conversation then focused on the existence of a true, united Latino community in the city. Betancourt replied with a definitive “yes” but adds that identity in the world today is so transnational that any individual may label himself or herself in any race or ethnicity they want. This was very thought-provoking, and it transitioned well with our discussion regarding Latino political identity. He responded that in general, Latinos are labeled as liberal and more consider themselves Democrats than Republicans. Betancourt did mention that studies conducted by the Pew Research Center are contrary to this notion. The study, he said, concluded that nationally, Latinos have been more conservative due to their pro-family and anti-abortion views aligned with Republicans. Despite these differences in observation and study, it was agreed at the end that the Latino population is gradually increasing in Connecticut. Along with the growth in population are challenges such as the aforementioned “English Only” programs. However, Betancourt remains optimistic and strongly feels that increased educational attainment—which may lead to better employment—in the Latino community forecasts a very promising road ahead.

Interview Transcript:

1Q: Could you tell us a little bit about your background? Religion? Citizenship? When did you move to the United States? Were there pull-and-push factors regarding your immigration?

1A: I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I came to the United States in 1987 when I was just twenty-eight-years old. Back in Puerto Rico, I was a member of the Puerto Rican Independency Party, president of my law school’s student council, and joined many other organizations which you can find in my online profile at the LPRAC website. While in college, I majored in Political Science and later pursued my non-profit certificate when I immigrated to Hartford. I then worked as a cabinet member for Mayor Daniels in New Haven.

2Q: How did you become the Executive Director of LPRAC?

2A: It was a simple yet competitive process. The position was created in 1995 when the Commission was chartered by the State of Connecticut. I saw an advertisement for the Executive Director position and decided to apply. Out of the many statewide applicants, the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission chose me.

3Q: As Executive Director of LPRAC, do you believe that the Commission serves as ample political representation for the Hispanic/Latino population in Connecticut?

3A: Technically, the Commission is not a political representative of the Latino community in the state. Instead, LPRAC is a non-partisan commission that is part of the state legislative branch. In terms of Latino representation in the state legislature, we definitely need more Latino members. There are only six Latino representatives and this is disproportional to the entire Latino state population.

4Q: What are some of the legislative and other challenges that LPRAC has faced since the Commission was created?

4A: LPRAC has faced many challenges in the past. Latino discrimination in the workplace, lack of Latino representation in the Connecticut legislature, the fact that 40% of Latinos don’t have healthcare, etc. are just a few examples. Most importantly, Governor Rell just vetoed the in-state tuition bill that would have granted children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition when they attend a state college or university. We will continue our support for the in-state tuition bill when it is introduced in the legislature again next year.

5Q: What is your opinion on Representative Piscopo and Thomaston’s bill proposal to make English the official language? In addition, bilingual education seems to be stereotyped as a “problem” rather than an attribute. Where does the Commission take a stand on this? Has it lobbied Hartford’s Board of Education Director, Adamowski, against or for “English Only” programs?

5A: I am a huge proponent of bilingual education. Unfortunately, I am not fully versed on Mr. Adamowski’s “English Only” program that he is currently instilling in Hartford’s public schools. What I personally know from studies that I have read, however, is that I takes seven years for students to be fluently bilingual in both languages. There definitely needs to be more dialogue between LPRAC, Mayor Eddie Perez, and Mr. Adamowski on this very important issue.

6Q: What is the objective(s) of the LPRAC Annual Gala?

6A: The Annual Gala serves to unite the Latino community in the state. We recognize Latino leaders and give scholarship rewards to outstanding students. It is also a chance for Latinos and guests to socialize, network, and simply share their evening with delicious food and live music performances by Latino artists.

7Q. Would you agree that commissions such as yours are generalized as having homogenous ideology due to your shared Latino identities? How so?

7A: There is a general sense that the Latino population as a whole is liberal. We must realize that ideology is a very difficult, vague, and general factor to measure. There is a perception and then there is reality—at times, it all depends on the person’s point of view. The Pew Research Center did a study and concluded that nationally, Latinos have been more conservative because they are pro-family and anti-abortion. This, of course, mimics the values of the Republican Party and some may say that Latinos are strongly Republican than Democrat. It remains a contested issue and from my point of view, Latino political identity simply rests upon the person’s context or background: social, economic, religious, immigration status, and so on. The list is endless.

8Q: What is the importance of maintaining events for the Latino community such as the Hispanic Heritage Postage Stamp Unveiling? How else do you promote similar events to those not able to access the information by internet?

8A: Just like the LPRAC Annual Gala, the Postage Stamp Unveiling is another novel idea. We try to educate people about Latino history and their contribution to America through the postage stamps. So far, the stamps have been popular. We have several exhibits in a few state colleges and universities.

9Q: Recognizing that the LPRAC website can be accessed from anywhere around the world through the internet, has the Commission received any responses from foreign readers and even foreign governments?

9A: As of now, we are currently putting more information and revamping the internet website. We plan to include links to national organizations similar to LPRAC across the country. To answer your question, yes, we have received messages and phone-calls from governments from China, Argentina, Mexico, and Puerto Rico. They usually ask us for information on economic, academic, and social areas in some shape or form.

10Q: How do you describe the Hispanic/Latino community in Connecticut (specifically Hartford)? Is there a Hispanic/Latino community? In your opinion, what constitutes a Hispanic/Latino community?

10A: Yes, there is definitely a Latino community in Hartford as well as other parts in Connecticut. They are a community through similarities in identity, language, nationality, etc. However, there are some differences within the Latino community as well. For example, Puerto Ricans tend to get together during baseball games while Peruvians and Ecuadorians do so in their own soccer leagues. As you can see, there is an umbrella Latino identity. Within that umbrella, there are several branches where Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Salvadorians, Uruguayans, etc. all belong yet exist independently also.

11Q: Clearly English is one of the important factors for U.S. assimilation and economic advancement. Do you and Commission board members use English as the dominant language? Has American life changed your Latino identity in any way? Have you felt as though you have lost part of your “Latino-ness” in the process of becoming politically and socially acculturized in America?

11A: When talking about business, English is the dominant language but Spanish is certainly allowed. Gradually, though, “Spanglish” is taking over because there are some terms in English that you can’t express in Spanish and vice-versa. In terms of my personal experience in America, I don’t feel that I’ve lost my sense of being a Latino individual. As we have discussed in earlier questions, being or feeling “Latino” depends on your upbringing and many other factors. My two sons, for example, were born in America and they have very little Latino mannerisms because they grew up in this society. They are much closer to the Anglo-American race because it is the dominant influence in their environment.

12Q: Has LPRAC had outside collaborations with domestic, national and international political, social organizations? If so, in what ways? And what was the purpose for these collaborations? What were the results and/or accomplishments?

12A: I think I’ve answered this question before. So let’s move on.

13Q: Manuel Vásquez, a prominent professor of religion, predicts that Hispanics will consist of half of the U.S. population by 2050. What is your response to this?

13A: I say that Vásquez is wrong. Instead, I would predict that Hispanics will consist of 30% of the U.S. population by 2050. I’m sure that Vásquez and I can both agree that Latino population growth is an upward trend. The census proves it to be so.

14Q: In what ways do you wish the Hispanic/Latino community would contribute to their own political representation? Would you say that increased Latino political involvement has to be headed solely by Latinos?

14A: No. It would be helpful and important to build coalitions with other ethnic groups and commissions to address issues that both communities are facing. In the past, we have allied with the African-American Affairs Commission regarding healthcare issues. In the end, there needs to be more Latino presence in state and local offices in order to address and help solve the unique concerns facing the Latino community.

15Q: In general, how do you see the future course of Latinos in Connecticut? Do you have any other comments/suggestions?

15A: The future looks to be very promising. Not only is our population increasing, but it is doing so at a very fast clip! As long as there is more educational attainment, it can be surely assumed that a Latino middle class will increase because employment will be higher and more specialized. The Latino community will surely be facing growing pains in the future. As in every ethnic group trying to gain an equal voice and opportunity in a world dominated by Anglo-Americans, Latinos will surely achieve such goals. It takes time, and patience is an important factor in its attainment.