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Taíno Pride: New Cultural Center Making Waves in Waterbury

10/1/22, 1:00 PM

Taíno Pride: New Cultural Center Making Waves in Waterbury
John Murray, Owner/Publisher Waterbury Observer
Fall 2022 Edition

Nelson Rafael Feliciano-Roman was excited and nervous as he set up a display table of Taíno
culture on the north side of the Waterbury Green on October 10th... .

Taíno Pride:  New Cultural Center Making Waves in Waterbury

John Murray, Owner/Publisher Waterbury Observer 

Fall 2022 Edition 


Nelson Rafael Feliciano-Roman was excited and nervous as he set up a display table of Taíno

 culture on the north side of the Waterbury Green on October 10th.   Roman was organizing a candlelight vigil on Indigenous People Day and he was unsure what response he'd get.  


"If two people showed up I'd be on Cloud 9," Roman said.  "We're going to do t his every year and we have to start somewhere."  


His passion and committment to Puerto Rican culture was rewarded when 50 Waterburians gathered on the Green to honor the Indigenous People who had lived in the Western Hemisphere for thousands of years before Christopher Columbus "discovered" America.  


Several million Taíno lived on the islands now called Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.   After the Europeans began inhabiting the islands the Taíno were decimated in a genocide triggered by disease, slavery, rape and murder.  


Taíno blood still flows through most Puerto Ricans who are unique blend of Indigenous, African and European ancestry.  The candlelight vigil, the first Indigenous Peoples Day celebration in Waterbury, was a reverential nod to the millions of lives lost in European conquest, and a celebration of Taíno culture with stories and dance.   


Roman, 35, grew up in Waterbury and was a political prodigy in middle and high school years.  He described himself as a typical middle school punk when his 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Wagner, pulled him aside and said she was going to fail him unless he worked on a special project.  She had noticed that Roman appeared to enjoy government and politics in her class, and her husband was good friends with U.S. Congressman Jim Maloney.  If Roman would interview Maloney and write a report she said she'd give him a passing grade.   


"I'll never forget that my Dad took me in a snowstorm to Congressman Maloney's office and I interviewed him for two hours during a blizzard," Roman said.  "I had a little tape recorder and Congressman Maloney let me interview him for two hours and I was grilled him."   


When Roman finished the interview he said Congressman Maloney asked him to join his campaign, and he did.  Roman went on to volunteer for State Representative Tom Conway's campaign, Mie Jarjura's historic write-in campaign in 2005, and Ron Napoli Sr.'s mayoral bid in 2021.   


"I cried like a baby when Napoli Sr lost," Roman said, "I was devastaed."   


During Napoli's consession speech Roman was handed the microphone and battling through tears he announced that someday he would become the first Hispanic Mayor of Waterbury.   


After high school Roman said he told his family that he was gay and he left Waterbury for a decade to live in New York, Puerto Rico, Massachusetts and Chicago.   


"Back in 2005 Waterbury wasn't a safe place for me to be," Roman said, "My parents took the news (of his sexuality) hard, so I wanted to go explore myself.  In Puerto Rico I started connecting wiht my Indigenous roots."   


The Romans are from Guanica, Puerto Rico, west of Ponce, on the southern coast of the island.  


After bouncing around a bit, Roman ended up in Holyoke, Massachussetts, a community with a vibrant Puerto Rican population.  Roman dove into the local politican scene and was elected to the Holyoke City Council.  


Roman said his spark for activism comes from two people;  his granmother Melin Mejil who participated in the March on Washington in 1963, and Hector Riollano, who helped start the Puerto Rican Democratic Club of Waterbury, when Democracts wouldn't allow Puerto Ricans on the Town Committee.   


After 15 years away, Roman returned to the city and has made an immediate impact on the local cultural scene.  He introduces himselfn now as Rafael Feliciano, and is in the process of legally changing his name to honor his mother.  He flatly states he is no longer interested in pursuing politics 

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