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First in the nation: memorial, park in Boston honor Puerto Rican veterans

Yawu Miller | 11/25/2013, 2:28 p.m. | Updated on 11/25/2013, 2:28 p.m.
The bronze monument unveiled in the South End, depicting male and female Puerto Rican soldiers, is the first in the nation dedicated to Puerto Rican soldiers. Photo by Yawu Miller

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Villa Victoria resident Elisa Soltren sings the National Anthem during the unveiling of the Puerto Rican Veterans monument in the South End last week.

When the curtain came off the nation’s first-ever memorial to Puerto Rican veterans, it was the culmination of 14 years of effort by a pair of Vietnam veterans determined to see their fellow soldiers honored for their service to their country.

Puerto Rican community members, veterans and elected officials turned out last week for the unveiling of the 15-foot tall bronze monument in the newly-named Puerto Rican Veterans Park at West Dedham and Washington streets in the in South End.

“Today is a great day for Puerto Ricans in the city of Boston,” said state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez. “It’s a day when we can celebrate who we are.”

The effort to construct the monument began in earnest in 1999, after Vietnam veterans Tony Molina and Jaime Rodriguez secured the triangular plot of land from the city and installed a plaque honoring the 65th Regiment, a Puerto Rican force that distinguished itself in the Korean War. From then on, the pair would come once or twice a week to clear litter and weeds from the park, cut the grass and maintain the plantings.

It was a simple memorial, with flagpoles for the U.S., Puerto Rican and Massachusetts flags, but then — as now — it was the sole monument to Puerto Rican fighters in the United States.

Molina and Rodriguez embarked on a fundraising campaign, hitting up corporations, hospitals and other institutions in the Boston area, often with disappointing results.

“We sent 21 proposals for funding to major banks in Boston,” Rodriguez says. “We got $500.”

In the end, Stuart Health Care donated $25,000, for the monument and park, which cost $400,000 to develop. The Red Sox gave $5,000.

Elected officials were able to bring in more. Sanchez and state Sen. Sonia Chang Diaz were able to secure $100,000 in state funding. Gov. Deval Patrick brought in $50,000 in state funding. Mayor Thomas Menino tapped the city’s Brown Fund for an additional $100,000.

Mayor-elect Marty Walsh told the gathering at last week’s unveiling he would work with the veterans to close the funding gap.

“We’ll figure out the $50,000,” he told the gathering last week.

The monument stands at an intersection that was the center of the Puerto Rican community when Molina and Rodriguez moved to Boston in the late 1960s. The park is opposite the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where many in the Puerto Rican community celebrated mass.

It also stands in front of the Villa Victoria housing development, which was built in the ‘70s after Puerto Rican tenants in the South End protested the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s decision to raze the apartment buildings where they lived.

Heading up the unveiling ceremony was Vanessa Calderon Rosado, executive director of Iquilinos Boricuas En Accion, the agency which built the Villa Victoria development who’s father Carmelo Calderon fought in Korea in the 65th Regiment.

“This monument will be the gateway for our beloved Villa Victoria community,” she said.

The park has been professionally landscaped with new trees planted and decorative grasses. The Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department has agreed to maintain the park, according to Rodriguez.

First visited by Christopher Columbus on Nov. 19, 1493, Puerto Rico was colonized by Spain in 1508. Puerto Rican colonists fought in the American Revolution and in every U.S. war since then, according to Rodriguez, but have rarely been recognized for the service.

“We’ve put a lot of work into this,” he said. “This is a monument for Puerto Ricans. Not a plaque, but a monument. We’ve fulfilled a promise to our people.”