María Colón Sánchez arrived in Hartford at the age of 28 in 1954, one of thousands of Puerto Ricans who moved to Connecticut in search of better economic opportunity during the mid-20th century. Within a few years, she had saved up enough money to open a convenience store, Maria’s News Stand, on Albany Avenue, and both the store and its popular owner quickly became fixtures in Hartford’s burgeoning Puerto Rican community.
The year after her arrival, Colón Sánchez joined with her fellow Puerto Rican Catholics to successfully petition the Hartford Archdiocese to install a Spanish-speaking priest at their local parish, and to provide a larger meeting space for the Spanish-speaking Sunday services — the first victories in what would become a lifetime of community activism. Colón Sánchez continued to serve as a fierce advocate for Hartford’s Puerto Ricans, and with her news stand functioning as a popular gathering place, she always had the ear of her community. She founded a number of organizations that are still active and vital to Hartford’s Hispanic population today, including the Spanish-American Merchants Association, the Puerto Rico Businessmen Association, and the Society of Legal Services. In 1964, she established the Puerto Rican Parade Committee, responsible for organizing one of Hartford’s most fun and beloved annual parade traditions.
Education was one of Colón Sánchez’s passions, in part because she was forced to drop out of school after 8th grade to help support her family in Puerto Rico. In Connecticut, she worked tirelessly to improve the prospects for Hartford’s Hispanic schoolchildren, establishing a fund to attract more Spanish-speaking teachers to the city and founding “La Escuelita” (the “little school”), Hartford’s first Spanish/English bilingual school. Colón Sánchez became the first Puerto Rican elected to a public office in Hartford when she successfully ran for a seat on the city’s Board of Education in 1973, and in 1978, she won a lawsuit mandating access to bilingual education throughout the entire Hartford school district.
By the 1980s, Colón Sánchez had firmly established herself as a beloved community figure and force of nature in Hartford politics. In 1988, she set her sights even higher, becoming the first Hispanic woman elected to the Connecticut General Assembly. Her ascendant political career, however, was cut tragically short: On November 25, 1989, not even a full year into her first term, María Colón Sánchez died from a sudden heart attack in her Hartford apartment. Hartford’s Puerto Rican community reacted with an outpouring of grief and fond remembrances of “La Madrina” — their “godmother”– who dedicated her life to improving the lives of her fellow immigrants. In 1991, the city named a school in Hartford’s Frog Hollow neighborhood “Maria Sanchez Elementary School” in her honor, and in 1995, she was inducted into the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame. La Madrina, fondly remembered, today in Connecticut history.
“Maria C. Sanchez,” Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame
José E. Cruz, “María Sánchez: Godmother of Hartford’s Puerto Rican Community,” Connecticut Explored
“Maria Sánchez, State Representative and Community Advocate,” connecticuthistory.org