The Connecticut General Assembly has awarded a $500,000 grant to a University of Connecticut professor to fund a groundbreaking Puerto Rican Studies Initiative. At a gathering at the Dodd Center on Thursday, Feb. 9, Professor Venator-Santiago presented an overview of the research projects of his initiatives to students and faculty.
According to Venator-Santiago, Connecticut has the sixth-largest Puerto Rican population in the mainland United States. However, this population also has a poverty rate almost three times higher than the average poverty rate in the state.
The PRSI aims to provide politicians, lawmakers, researchers and the general public with easily accessible information to understand the Puerto Rican population better, Venator-Santiago said.
According to Venator-Santiago, the PRSI is also developing various projects to support Puerto Ricans, such as an emergency communications hub, a welcome center and civic and cultural education projects. He is also creating easily accessible data sheets summarizing a demographic profile of Puerto Ricans in Connecticut.
“Believe it or not, no one has done this, ever. It’s strange to me because it is not that complicated. You grab a U.S. Census form in the current population survey, and then you summarize it. You make it available in a language that is accessible,” Venator-Santiago said. “So, we’re doing that.”
Making this information easily accessible is vital to inform public policy, according to Venator-Santiago.
“Simple information that explains the empirical reality of life for people actually has an impact in shaping policy,” he said.
He is also developing a data hub that provides a demographic profile of Puerto Ricans, Latinos and Hispanics in every city and town in Connecticut. This data hub will have dashboards available about food deserts in Connecticut and other important information.
“For the first time, we’ll have a central publicly accessible data hub that will give any legislature at any jurisdiction or any person of the public access to all the publicly available data on Puerto Ricans and Latinos and Latin Americans in those locations,” Venator-Santiago said. “The goal is to create some sort of access to data that can help activists — and lawmakers and politicians and everybody else — sort of better plan, make better plans to look for resources.”
With this, Venator-Santiago is also developing resources to get Puerto Ricans involved in civic engagement. One of these projects is a Spanish-speaking civic education program with El Show de Analeh, a talk show.
He also plans to establish a welcome center in Hartford in collaboration with the Hispanic Health Council. This welcome center would provide access to services such as social security information, labor, health, housing, education, mental health and food. He said that this welcome center would be expanded to address emergency needs as well as necessary.
“They can come in, and they can get an introduction that will enable them to incorporate the joy of the city in more effective ways,” Venator-Santiago said.
Another project the PRSI is working on is an emergency communications hub. This would be a satellite system that circumvents regular communications, he explained.
“One of the things that we’ve learned from crises in Puerto Rico is that every time there’s a hurricane or a major disaster, the government shuts down the communications network,” Venator-Santiago said. “And unless you have access to satellite communications or a particular direct line, it’s really hard to communicate with residents or fellow Puerto Ricans living in the island. The idea is to create multiple hubs here in Connecticut where if there’s a crisis, you can go to the satellite hub, and then you can communicate.”
Other research initiatives the PRSI is working on are an oral history project focusing on lessons from community leaders for civic engagement, public archives that allow people to access key documents that are not typically accessible and a publicly available Puerto Rican Studies Journal.
Venator-Santiago said he is determined to keep all this information and resources accessible to everyone, despite receiving requests to keep the database private.
Students who attended the event were impressed with Venator-Santiago’s projects and his commitment to their accessibility.
“The fact that he’s making all this information publicly available is great,” said Susana Mejia, an eighth-semester political science and Latino and Latin American studies major. “Like we heard his whole anecdote of him not really wanting to make money off of it — at some point, you know, you have to — but the fact that it’s public information for anyone to access is nice.”
“It’s so important for our people to know their histories, to talk our language, to really break through these spaces in a firmer identity,” Heidi Pineda, an eighth-semester political science and Latino and Latin American studies major, said.
This initiative is housed at El Instituto and collaborates with the Hispanic Health Council and the Puerto Rican Latin@ Project at the UConn School of Social Work.