The Puerto Ricans of Western Massachusetts: An Interview with Joseph Carvalho III
Updated: Mar 12
By R.A. Lawson, NEJH Associate Editor
March 11, 2022
In the following interview, R.A. Lawson discusses the history of Puerto Rican communities in western Massachusetts with historian and archivist Joseph Carvalho III. They talk about Carvalho's Fall 2017 NEJH article, "The Development of Puerto Rican Communities in Springfield, Holyoke, and Westfield, 1947-2010," our Featured Article for Spring 2022, as well as Carvalho's approach to research and community activism. Carvalho is currently the Co-Editor of the (Springfield) Republican newspaper’s Heritage Book Series, and retired President and Executive Director (1994–2010) of the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Out of the Darkness: History of Corrections Reform at the Hampden County, Massachusetts Sheriff's Department, 17th Century to Today (2022). Carvalho also has served on the editorial boards of the Historical Journal of Massachusetts and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly. He is a graduate of Westfield State University (B.A., 1975), the College of William & Mary (M.A., 1977), and the University of Rhode Island (M.L.I.S., 1984) and is a Certified Archivist and Certified Genealogical Records Searcher.
LAWSON: Thank you, Joe, for speaking with me today about your research. You published an article with us in 2017 detailing the development of Puerto Rican communities in western Massachusetts, in the Connecticut River Valley. In some ways we might consider Puerto Ricans moving to western Massachusetts alongside other widely known immigrant experiences in the twentieth century, however you point out in your piece that there were some key elements that made the Puerto Rican migration experience unique. What was particular about their experiences?
CARVALHO: Although they shared the negative experiences of “otherness” that new groups of immigrants and migrants experienced, there were several aspects that make the Puerto Rican experience in many ways different than other groups of migrants or immigrants. First, Puerto Ricans came to the mainland as Americans not immigrants. Their status as citizens allowed them to travel back to Puerto Rico on a regular basis. It was not unusual for Puerto Rican siblings to be born in Puerto Rico, and another sibling to be born in Massachusetts or Connecticut and then the next sibling born back in Puerto Rico. The extended families of the Puerto Rican community kept ties to the island very close for generations. In that way, it was a similar experience to New England’s French-Canadian community of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, although not all became naturalized citizens. Their experience probably most closely mirrored the African American migrants from the South who maintained connections with their southern brethren after moving to the industrial north.
The multi-generational ties of Puerto Ricans to the island also kept the Spanish language alive in the community longer than in other immigrant communities. It was a source of cultural strength but prolonged the sense of “otherness” in a New England community that shunned bilingualism. Puerto Ricans were also living in the context of a wider and very diverse Latino community with language and aspects of culture providing genuine ties. Nevertheless, Puerto Ricans were already American citizens and, in that role, provided haven, and opportunity to other Latino immigrants from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Very few other immigrant groups from Europe or Asia had that benefit of common language and heritage to help them. These groups of immigrants depended largely on earlier immigrants of their specific groups to serve as sponsors America.
LAWSON: You have not only been a diligent researcher of Springfield and Connecticut Valley history, but you’re also a civic leader active in business and cultural development; suffice to say your knowledge of the region is deep. For researchers and other interested parties wanting to learn about the Puerto Rican history of western Mass., what sources would you recommend? And I’m thinking both in terms of actual primary sources that you’ve found valuable but also physical spaces—libraries or community centers, etc.—that people should be aware of.
One of the key resources for piecing together the long history of the Puerto Rican presence in Western Massachusetts has been local newspapers. Newspapers in communities with the largest Puerto Rican populations are invaluable. In Western Massachusetts, the Springfield Republican, the Springfield Union, the Springfield Daily News, the Westfield Evening News, The Westfield News, the Westfield Valley Herald, and the Holyoke Transcript are the most information rich. For the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries, El Pueblo Latino (Spanish language newspaper published by the Republican in Springfield) is the best source for hard-to-find information about the events and personalities on the Latino/Puerto Rican community.
Researchers using these resources should keep in mind that there have been at least five eras of coverage of the Puerto Rican community from the late-nineteenth century through today. The first era could be called the Exotic Era. It extended from the time of the Spanish American War to the 1930s. Stories of these new Americans were rare and usually focused on Americanization efforts in Puerto Rico, individual Puerto Ricans who came to Western Massachusetts for employment, or travelling speakers. As early as the 1890s, local newspapers touted the exotic products from Puerto Rico as special sale features for department stores, etc. Local papers also became more interested in hurricanes that occasionally lashed the shores of this new American Territory in the Caribbean.
The second era (the new American workers) of newspaper coverage of the Puerto Rican experience was about seasonal Puerto Rican laborers who came to Westfield and Southwick to work the tobacco fields, and other agricultural work in the Connecticut Valley from the 1930s to 1950s. This was a period where Puerto Rican families began to settle in areas even after the farm seasons ended. The early communities developed in Westfield, Springfield, and Holyoke. It was also a time where Puerto Rican workers began to be hired into non-agricultural lines of work. H.B Smith in Westfield was one of the first employers to hire large numbers of Puerto Rican workers for factory work. This was also a time of a clash of cultures and the newspapers often depicted Puerto Ricans involved in these clashes as the perpetrators with rare moments of empathy exhibited in the news articles. Because all of these stories were not written by Puerto Ricans or Latinos, the reader and researcher must take that into account when reading or interpreting what was in print.
The third era (Clash of Cultures) of newspaper reporting mirrored society’s generally negative attitude toward this growing part of “their” communities. Headline stories of crime, poor housing conditions, unemployment, and the “transient nature” of the Puerto Rican community were common from the 1950s to early 1980s. While the civil rights movement of the 1960s focused on the rights of African Americans, newspapers rarely covered the same issues as they applied to the Puerto Rican community until the 1970s and even at that time were not as sympathetic to the plight of Latinos.
The fourth era (The Fight for Civil Rights) of newspaper coverage began in the 1980s in the Springfield area. Local newspapers began to present more sympathetic stories about the community, highlighted local Puerto Rican leaders in a more positive light. They began to editorialize for better opportunities for Latinos/Puerto Ricans. The Springfield newspapers even began endorsing Latino candidates for public office and supporting revisions to the ward system of voting to give more opportunities for minority candidates. The Puerto Rican business community began to emerge as an economic force and influence in local politics. This era can be defined as extending into the 21st Century.
The fifth era (Controlling the Narrative) of newspaper coverage began in the 1990s and extends to today with the publication of El Pueblo Latino, and the inclusion of Latino/Puerto Rican journalists at the Springfield Republican and Union News. It became a new era where Puerto Ricans were in more control of the narrative of their community. In this era, elected officials of Puerto Rican heritage have become common in Springfield, Holyoke, and Westfield; they are beginning to have inroads in the upper Connecticut Valley.
As to other important sources: The Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History has a massive library and archives for local history. Their resources are too large to detail here. Suffice to say, anyone researching local Latino history needs to use this resource. The Holyoke Room of the Holyoke Public Library is also an excellent source for the Holyoke Latino experience. The Westfield Athenaeum’s archives and local history collection contains important information and images of the local Puerto Rican community.
The University of Massachusetts’ Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center holds the Dean Albertson Oral History Collection which contains interviews with social activists and civil rights leaders. Researchers will find the Tertulia Collection of interest as well. A popular Spanish-language community radio program broadcast on the New England Public Radio station WFCR, Tertulia featured a wide range of music from the Caribbean region and South and Central America, news in both English and Spanish, and discussions of topics of importance to the Latino community.
Researchers should also reach out to the existing Latino community organizations which maintain their own history files and photo collections such as the Spanish American Union in Springfield, Nueva Esperanza in Holyoke, the New England Farm Workers Council and the Puerto Rican Cultural Council in Springfield, the Westfield Spanish American Association, the Greater Holyoke Latino Chamber of Commerce, Nuestras Raices in Holyoke, the New North Citizens Council in Springfield, the Western Massachusetts Bilingual Veterans Outreach Center in Springfield, and the Puerto Rican and Latino Leadership Council in Springfield.
LAWSON: At the New England Journal of History, we support and encourage young and/or developing historians to pursue the craft. You had a long run in the editorial world at the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, among other publishing enterprises. What guidance would you offer to those who are seeking first-time publication, or just general publishing advice?
CARVALHO: I have spent my career as a professional historian researching people, events, institutions that have not been adequately included, described, or interpreted within the framework of our collective past. The remarkable diversity of our population and its unique contributions to what we are as a society today has led me to dig deeper into the stories of the many ethnic, and religious communities that comprise the tapestry of the American experience. I have been particularly interested in the history of the African American community and have published books and articles on various aspects of our regional component of that history.
My recommendation to young researchers is to find aspects of our past that have not been adequately described and interpreted. I would encourage them to conduct oral histories of individuals who can provide insight and historical details of people, events, and institutions that has not been adequately documented.
LAWSON: Throughout your career you’ve worked on so many angles of history—serving on boards of historical organizations, doing museum work, publishing and producing works of history—but you’ve also, as mentioned, been involved in myriad civic organizations and causes. Thinking about the connection between history and civic engagement, how can historians, teachers of history, and other history-involved professionals use their skills to effectively and positively impact their communities? Can great things be accomplished through public history?
CARVALHO: I have been able to speak with some authority and impact on every board or community organization or committee on which I have served by informing the discussions and decision making with a historical perspective. Also having researched the many communities within Greater Springfield, I was able to inject some empathy for underrepresented constituents that impacted decisions of these entities. A sense of history and a view of diversity as a positive force in a community guided me in my participation in those many organizations whether it be in non-profits or in business. Essentially, public history was a “player at the table” so to speak and was always a major consideration when it came to ultimate decision-making on projects, policies, and promotions.