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Trenton’s Puerto Rican history captured with a collaborative research project

Despite a less than hospitable welcome and tasked with overcoming racism in the 1950s, Trenton’s first Latinx members established successful business, education, and public service opportunities in the city that still stand today. The stories of these pioneering residents were recently captured in a cross-disciplinary research project involving students and faculty from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the School of the Arts and Communication.

According to Ann Warner-Ault, assistant professor of Spanish and the project leader since 2017, Puerto Ricans were the first Latinx group to settle in Trenton in large numbers during the peak of the city’s manufacturing economy in the 1950s. However, their history is largely missing from the city’s historical records—including the hardships they faced.

“While the city archives contain extensive documentation and data about Irish, Italian, and Jewish residents of Trenton, such accounts of the city’s Latinx groups are largely absent, even though Latinos comprise more than 30 percent of Trenton’s current population,” Warner-Ault says.

To learn more about the city’s revolutionary residents, Warner-Ault and her students attended Puerto Rican community events in Trenton, the Puerto Rican flag raising, Puerto Rican Day parade, Hurricane Maria benefit and relief meetings, and gallery events featuring Puerto Rican artists. They also met with influential residents, local politicians, and community leaders to collect oral histories.

Among the nearly 50 oral histories recorded is a series about the life of the late Carlos Pacheco, a prominent Puerto Rican resident, who has been honored with a street bearing his name in Trenton.

“We recorded interviews with Pacheco’s family members, friends, and former colleagues, including the former mayor of Trenton, Doug Palmer,” Warner-Ault says. “One of his most notable accomplishments was being Trenton’s first Affirmative Action Officer, integrating the Trenton police and fire departments, and opening the door for more Latinx politicians.” 

Because of these early Puerto Rican leaders, future Latin American immigrants in Trenton have also been able to find bilingual daycare and public-school education, enjoy Spanish-speaking church services, and have important forms translated into Spanish.

“Puerto Ricans have contributed greatly to Trenton, so we wanted to highlight their rich contributions to the city, its residents, and tell stories of unknown and unsung heroes in the community,” she says.  

The transcriptions and audio of the interviews will be archived in the Trentoniana collection in the Trenton Free Public Library. The research and interviews are also available online, courtesy of a dual-language website created by Kassandra Sánchez ’20.

— David Pavlak

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