WILLIAMSTOWN -- When Williams College Professor Mérida Rúa was working on her research project while pursuing her doctorate at the University of Michigan, she rented a room in a funeral home for about two years.
Turns out, she was in the Caribe Funeral Home, the first Puerto Rican-owned funeral home in Chicago -- the perfect setting to observe how an ethnic community reacts and evolves in response to neighborhood, societal and economic changes and the new challenges that result.
Rúa, an associate professor of Latino Studies and American Studies who chairs the college's American Studies Program, will discuss her experiences and conclusions on Thursday in another entry of the Williams College annual faculty lecture series.
"A Grounded Identidad: Making New Lives in Chicago's Puerto Rican Neighborhoods" will take place at 4:15 p.m. in Wege Auditorium in Thompson Chemistry. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Rúa is well-versed in the Puerto Rican community of the near northwest side of Chicago, which is where she grew up.
In renting a room at the funeral home, she was just looking for a place to stay. But as her research continued, she realized that this was one of few focal points left for a community that has had to move to new neighborhoods or towns because of gentrification, urban redevelopment and economic stresses.
Community members tended to gather at the funeral home for daily get-togethers, and
Wakes proved to be a valuable source of information about this particular ethnic group, Rúa said. At the wakes, people would reminisce about the old times, the deceased and his or her accomplishments or failures.
Through this, Rúa was able to determine what community members see as valuable, why they see someone as successful, how they feel about their community and the societal changes happening around them.
This Puerto Rican community in Chicago started arriving in the 1940s, with about 400 people recruited from the island for work as domestic and factory workers.
Following that community through to current times, Rúa has been able to follow its evolution, how it has reacted to the various changes in society, and the challenges and losses along the way. She also followed how members are able to retain their sense of community and hope through all the changes, all based at the funeral home.
"They lost neighborhoods, but did not lose their sense of community," Rúa said. "They relocate to other places, but still claim history in some of the old places, like in churches and at the funeral home."
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