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."
Chapter 2: A High School Star In `San Juan North'
In Hartford, A Boy Grows Up Alongside Puerto Rican Nationalism
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