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Chapter 2: A High School Star In `San Juan North'

The Hartford Courant

Hector Mercado was going to lose. His wrestling talents were just no match for his all-state opponent. And everybody on the Bulkeley High School team knew it. Everybody, that is, except Victor Gerena.

"The match was like, 'Hector's going to get pinned.' That was the attitude," Mercado remembers. "Even the coach had no faith in me. And Victor said, 'Hector, I'll coach you. I'll be by the side. Just look at me.' And I'm looking at Victor. And I can see him right now, telling me, 'You got him. Kill him.'

"Because the guy made one mistake. I grabbed his neck and I pinned it into my thighbone. And then I didn't know what to do. I looked up and there was Victor, like a damn angel. He made a signal, 'Turn him.' And I slowly turned him. I pinned him."

Gerena, the inspiration, may have been the most popular kid at Bulkeley in Hartford's South End during his years there in the early 1970s.

His future was limitless. He was a leader. He was outgoing and charismatic. He was industrious and determined and he proved himself by example; he once wrestled with a broken wrist. In return, everyone worshiped him.

A member of the Human Relations Club, he took a vow "to maintain the most friendly relations with those whom you are helping." He was a trained peer counselor, guiding other students through high school's hormonal minefields. He played on the football team. The wrestling team, of which he was captain, was so popular it gave rise to the Mat Maids, who followed the grapplers around and baked them cookies.

"Victor was one of these guys who always seemed to be doing the right thing," Mercado says. "Even when everybody was doing the wrong thing, this guy kind of gave the impression, 'It's OK. I'm watching out.' "

Like most teenagers, Gerena showed little interest in politics, although he was on the student council, perhaps because he was so well liked.

Gerena's mother, Gloria, on the other hand, was a committed ideologue when it came to independence for her native Puerto Rico. She was an avid member of the local branch of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, the radical pro-independence party formed when Filiberto Ojeda Rios created his violent splinter group, the Armed Commandos of Liberation. Whether Victor liked it or not, Gloria Gerena routinely brought her eldest son along to meetings.

Hartford's Puerto Rican population was undergoing something of a regeneration when Gerena started his freshman year at Bulkeley High in 1972. A year earlier, it received an injection of new energy when 30 Puerto Rican university students came to Hartford to teach and study.

They were bright college kids committed to Puerto Rican independence and they were members of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party.

One of them, Edwin Vargas Jr., sold copies of the party's somewhat bombastic newspaper, Claridad, on street corners. Not much later, he was president of the party's Hartford chapter.

Vargas, in his formative politics, was typical of the teachers. He was raised in a conservative, Brooklyn, N.Y., family and for a time considered joining the Catholic Church. He attended college in Puerto Rico. During his third year he became something of a missionary, traveling through Central America to work with the poor and teach English.

He was appalled by the poverty he believed was imposed by American fruit companies. He remembers a young man, little more than a boy, who was tortured and killed for trying to organize agricultural workers. Central America gave him a social conscience.

It was a heady time to be a Latin radical, even among the religious. The Catholic Church was divided over whether it had a moral obligation to support the insurgencies -- some called them national liberation movements -- blossoming in Latin America. The church's ultimate decision to withdraw as a force for political change moved Vargas from religion to radical Puerto Rican politics.

In Hartford, the Puerto Rican Socialist Party looked longingly at events in Latin America, hoping for a world that would include an independent Puerto Rico. And they began challenging an earlier generation of Puerto Ricans in Hartford.

"We were the young Turks who were pissed off at the old guard," Vargas said. "The old guard didn't like us pushing independence, didn't like our radical politics. About the only thing they did like was our lighting a fire under the city bureaucracy."

The party seemed at times as much neighborhood association as political party, organizing a diverse collection of programs, particularly for youngsters. There were speeches and music by Puerto Rican folk musicians. Everything had an independentista bent.

"Kids like Victor were coming to our meetings, listening to our speeches," Vargas said. "He was a kid shaped by coming to meetings with his mother and making a commitment on independence of Puerto Rico. He had all that rhetoric. He listened to our tutoring."


In high school, the teachers loved Gerena, not just because of who he was, but because of his family. Gloria Gerena was a dream parent. She was supportive and hardworking. She was deeply involved in the education of her children. She enrolled in college herself.

During his junior year at Bulkeley, Gerena was selected to participate in the Upward Bound program. The city's most promising students were given an intensive college preparatory curriculum of courses at Trinity College. Even when lifted from the student body and placed among elite students, he stood out. He wore smart clothes. He liked to make a splash.

"When he was a senior, he was taking his prom date out and he wanted to do it in style," said William Guzman, a counselor who worked with Gerena in Upward Bound. "He wanted to rent a car. That was Victor. Everything was top shelf.

"He needed somebody to vouch for him when he went to the rental agency and he asked me to do it. I said sure. That was an indication of this kid. He knows how to do it right, in his own mind anyway."

At great personal sacrifice, Gloria Gerena had left her husband and moved her young family from New York to Hartford in 1970 to give the children a better life. Now, all her dreams for her eldest son seemed to be coming true. He could be a doctor or a lawyer or anything he wanted to be.

In 1976, Gerena won Bulkeley High's $1,000 Jack L. Fox scholarship. He was chosen to be a legislative intern at the General Assembly.

At the state Capitol, he found himself under the wing of Marion Delaney, a formidable figure and a political institution in her own right. Until her death in 1996, she helped run the clerk's office at the state House of Representatives. In practice, she helped run the Capitol.

As he did everyone else, Gerena captivated her. She made him a personal project. She advised him on his appearance. She corrected his speech. And she wanted to know where he was going to college.


While Gerena was growing academically in the mid-1970s, Hartford's Puerto Rican population was becoming a subject of increasing distress for government agencies concerned with the national security.

A U.S. Senate committee reported in 1975 that Cuba, through its support for the Puerto Rican independence movement, was a serious threat. It described the Puerto Rican Socialist Party as an arm of the Cuban intelligence service, a pawn Castro and his backers in the Soviet Union were playing to expand their influence in the Caribbean.

Agents providing intelligence to Congress were charting the party's hierarchy in Hartford and elsewere in southern New England. They were taking notes of what was discussed at meetings.But apparently they were not sufficiently sophisticated in their analysis to detect a growing schism between the party in Hartford and the national organization, based in New York and San Juan.

Nationally, the party was rigidly doctrinaire and devoted exclusively to Puerto Rican independence. Policy was set at the top. Tolerance for dissent was minimal.

The Puerto Rican political leadership in Hartford had more on its agenda than independence. The city's idealistic young leaders had made housing and education issues equal in importance to the island's independence.

"We were organizing politically," Vargas said. "We were getting involved in the process of government and making Hartford a better place for a growing number of Puerto Rican residents."

The national leadership balked.

Party insiders in Hartford came to the cynical view that the larger party opposed political measures designed to improve the quality of life for mainland Puerto Ricans. The thinking went that if the mainland Puerto Ricans did not assimilate, they would be more receptive to the implicitly anti-American call for independence.

"New York thought it was quixotic and misguided to think that it was possible to improve the conditions of Puerto Ricans on the mainland because it wouldn't happen until there was a free Puerto Rico," Vargas said. "There was a train of thought that wanted to keep mainland Puerto Ricans miserable."

In 1976, Vargas received an ominous telephone call. He and Jose LaLuz, another local party officer, were summoned to a meeting in New York.

"We drove down to a nonresidential district," Vargas says. "It was like we were supposed to report to a building. A factory. We had to use a code to get in. They had a kangaroo court. We were accused of factionalism and violating the democratic centralism of the movement.

"I remember telling Jose LaLuz, 'Do you think we'll even get out of here?' We thought they might shoot us. For real."

Vargas and LaLuz were expelled from the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, but it had no noticeable effect on the political vibrancy of Hartford's Puerto Rican population. Puerto Ricans became increasingly influential in mainstream city politics; Vargas became active in the Hartford Federation of Teachers and is now its first vice president.

But the Hartford chapter of the doctrinaire Puerto Rican Socialist Party became a micro-group. If it survived, it did so underground. National security experts continued to watch with concern.

Gloria Gerena remained a Puerto Rican patriot, a committed independentista, and member of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party. But if her son Victor was attuned to the intricacies of Puerto Rican power politics, he showed no signs. By 1976, he was consumed with going to college.

He could have gone anywhere, probably on a scholarship. He was considering the University of Connecticut and Trinity College. Forget about it, Marion Delaney told him. His mentor at the state Capitol had already decided that Victor should go to Annhurst College, her alma mater.

Gerena agreed. It was a disastrous decision.

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