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Arts & Culture

As Hartford Becomes Home, Puerto Rican Evacuees Take A Trip To Mark Twain House

Minutes into touring the Mark Twain House in Hartford, the visitors came across a black-and-white photo of a young Clara Clemens, a daughter of Mark Twain. Soon, it dawned on everyone that Clara looks a lot like Milianis Rivera, a Puerto Rican evacuee.

Lea esta historia en español. / Read this story in Spanish.

“Yes, yes. … I saw it right away,” said the tour guide, Grace Belanger. “Looks like you!”

Milianis, a 5-year-old student at Hartford’s Sanchez Elementary School, came to this national landmark on a Saturday morning with her mom and other families displaced from Puerto Rico. They climbed the creaky stairs of the historic home built in 1874, and learned that the famous man who used to live here had affection for their island.

“He did love to go down to the Caribbean,” said Belanger, assistant manager of historic interpretation for the Mark Twain House & Museum. “And he did visit Puerto Rico.”

This private tour was months in the making. Hartford schools Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said she was talking to some of the evacuees in December, just a few months after Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico — the damage forcing out thousands of U.S. citizens who began resettling in cities such as Hartford.

“They were wondering, you know, how am I going to get to know the community?” Torres-Rodriguez recalled. She remembers them saying, “I don’t feel like I belong, I don’t feel like I will ever belong.”

When the superintendent asked if they had been to any of the museums in Hartford, they told her no, she said — and that they worried about access and the language barrier.

Credit Vanessa de la Torre / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Puerto Rican evacuee Milianis Rivera, 5, delights when she sees a photo of young Clara Clemens. Mark Twain House tour guide Grace Belanger, left, said Milianis looks like Clara. Sanchez School employee Sally Vazquez, in red, translated in Spanish.

The topic kicked up some memories for Torres-Rodriguez, who said she visited the Mark Twain House as a new arrival from Puerto Rico in the mid-1980s. She was 9 years old.

“Fifth grade, Burns Elementary,” she said. “First field trip ever. Ever.”

Helping evacuees feel more at home in their new city is a long-term process. An invitation to this cultural institution, organizers thought, was a small step.

On a recent spring day, displaced families at Burns and Sanchez schools arrived for their own field trip to this vintage Hartford place. The two city schools each received a big influx of evacuees after the hurricane — and both are located just over a mile away from the American landmark where Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, lived when he produced literary classics such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Credit Vanessa de la Torre / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Puerto Rican evacuees were guests at the Mark Twain House during a recent private tour of the national historic landmark in Hartford.

Belanger led one group of families throughout the restored home, showing the billiards room where Twain wrote his most famous works. Sanchez School employee Sally Vazquez translated the tour in Spanish, a role she performed with gusto.

Sometimes, it was clear that the children had learned enough English to translate, too.

After checking out the Clemens family kitchen, the Puerto Rican families stepped outside. Maria del Mar Morales, one of the parents displaced from the island, said the 144-year-old house seemed like a nice place to live — although it was so big, she said, it’d be a bit tricky to clean.

Milianis, the 5-year-old who bears a striking resemblance to Clara Clemens, also offered her opinion: “Está bonita.”

“She said it’s beautiful,” Vazquez said.

As it turned out, the field trip was also an opportunity to network. Belanger noted several times that the museum is looking for bilingual Spanish speakers to become tour guides.

This report is part of the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. The initiative is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and includes reporters in Hartford, Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo., and Portland, Ore.

Vanessa de la Torre is editorial director and executive editor of the New England News Collaborative, a regional hub of nine public media stations producing news and in-depth storytelling throughout New England. Previously, de la Torre was a reporter for Connecticut Public and the public radio collaborative Sharing America, covering issues of race, identity and culture. Before joining the public media world, de la Torre wrote for newspapers such as the Hartford Courant, where her investigative storytelling on Hartford education won regional and national awards. She also was part of the Courant team that was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. De la Torre grew up in El Centro, Calif., a desert town near the U.S.-Mexico border, and is a graduate of Princeton University. She received her master's degree from Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Journalism. Since 2021, de la Torre has served on the board of the award-winning New England chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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