Joint Venture

I n the years following World War II, greater New Haven welcomed a surge of newcomers from Puerto Rico. They were the first large group of Latinos to settle here, and many took up work on farms in the surrounding towns. But while they had left behind their island’s high unemployment and poverty, all was not well on the mainland.

Working conditions on local farms were poor, leaving many workers “feeling almost like indentured servants,” says Daniel Reyes, executive director of Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven nonprofit created in 1969 to represent the interests of the area’s Latino/Latinx population. One of its founders, Gumercindo Del Rio, “would basically go and ‘rescue’ Puerto Rican migrants that were in the farms and bring them to New Haven,” Reyes says. Many shifted to manufacturing jobs at the Winchester Repeating Arms Company plant.

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It was a time when racial unrest in New Haven and the nation as a whole was coming to a head. “That was mostly a black-white dynamic,” Reyes says, “but amongst that was the Latino community really kind of saying, you know, we don’t have representation either… There were no Latino firefighters, there were no Latino police officers, there were no Latino teachers, nobody in the government who was Latino or spoke Spanish…” As a result, four community leaders—Del Rio, Pura Delgado, Marcos Ocasio and Carlos Rodriguez—came together and created Junta. “Its main purpose was to really kind of be that bridge between the community and the city,” Reyes says.

Over the decades that followed, New Haven’s Latino/Latinx population became more diverse, and new needs arose. While many Mexicans and Puerto Ricans have been here now for generations, communities of Ecuadorans, Columbians and Dominicans have also settled in the city. The most recent newcomers have fled Central America—particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—due to economic crises there, Reyes says. Data Haven reports that in 2017, greater New Haven’s Hispanic population of 71,238 made up 15.3% of all residents.

Last year, Junta—which Reyes calls “the oldest Latinx multi-service agency in the state”—celebrated its 50th year, even as it reexamined its role in the diversifying Latino/Latinx community in New Haven and beyond and shored up its efforts for the coming decades. Reyes, who came to Junta a year and a half ago from a nonprofit providing emergency food in New York City, was tasked with asking the question, “Who are we?”

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“Well, we’re all of it,” he concludes with a laugh. “We have to be for Latinos who have just arrived and for Latinos who’ve been here for generations. We have to be here for Latinos that speak English and Latinos that don’t speak English. We have to be here for everybody… We have to be kind of malleable and adaptable to the ever-changing needs of the communities that we’re serving.”

Junta also has to do “all of it” better, Reyes says. A beefed-up budget of $634,000—a 76% increase from the year before—has allowed him to hire more staff, including a grant writer, for a current total of 13 employees. The nonprofit is organized into three departments: Junta 360, which connects people with social services, housing and other resources and assists with acute needs and immigration issues; Junta Rises, offering adult classes in English as a Second Language (ESL), bilingual GED diplomas, computer proficiency, financial literacy and work readiness; and Junta Youth, running two afterschool programs—The Neighborhood Place for kids aged 5 to 12 and Youth in Action, a leadership program for high schoolers. Other pop-up services this year will include help with tax preparation through Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and filling out 2020 census forms. Volunteers are always needed, Reyes says, for afterschool programs and a monthly mobile food pantry held in conjunction with the Connecticut Food Bank.

Those who benefit from Junta’s services are known not as “clients” but as neighbors, constituents, friends, guests, Reyes says. That community-oriented approach set the tone for the group’s Three Kings party last weekend, where families gathered around big tables at the nearby Atwater Senior Center to eat rosca de reyes, talk and play with new toys chosen by Junta staff. The Three Kings of the January 6 holiday, wearing colorful robes and crowned headdresses, sat in front of a giant poster of a star and handed out toys, pausing to talk to each child and pose for photos.

Junta staffer Celina Fernández praises the start Junta gave her own family when they first arrived in New Haven in the 1970s. “Section 8, health care, school registration, everything that they needed, Junta provided them,” Fernández says. “I didn’t know that until after I was hired.” A primary reason for Junta’s success across the generations is trust, Fernández adds. “That’s what’s great about working out here in Fair Haven is that we have that trust, we have that openness with our community where they feel comfortable coming to us.”

In Junta’s 51st year, Reyes aims to collaborate more with other local Latino/Latinx organizations like ARTE, with whom it threw the Three Kings party, and Progreso Latino Fund and Puerto Ricans United, which joined Junta and ARTE to hold a fundraiser later that same day—a contest to choose the best local coquito. A sold-out 50th anniversary gala last fall gave Junta a boost, and additional events are coming up this year, including a spring cocktail fundraiser and a summer fundraiser to celebrate the graduation of its ESL students.

But events like those aren’t just about fundraising; they’re also about relationships. “We’re not about ‘helping’ people,” Reyes says. “We’re about collaborating with our neighbors to lift everybody up.”

Junta for Progressive Action
169 Grand Ave, New Haven (map)
(203) 787-0191 | [email protected]

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 and 2 depict scenes from Saturday’s Three Kings party. Image 3 features Daniel Reyes.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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