In 1959, Puerto Ricans started arriving in the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts looking for employment opportunities in the factories located on the Merrimack River. One of those was Isabel Melendez, who arrived with dreams of continuing her career as a teacher. That was not to be as the only work available to her was in the shoe factories. Although it was a tough start for her in the United States, she prevailed and in 20 years would become a community activist who advocated for newly arrived immigrants to the city of Lawrence.
Initially the greatest influx came in from Puerto Rico and Cuba, followed by residents from Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico and other Latino countries. During those 20 years, many trips were taken to Boston, 30 miles away to get access to products of our Latino heritage and culture. One of the purpose of these many trips was to enjoy the Puerto Rican Festival in Boston. In 1978, Isabel went to Boston’s Puerto Rican Festival with two friends from Cuba and Ecuador. That trip initiated the desire in her to have a similar celebration in Lawrence and thus the planning for the first Latino festival.
Even though Isabel could have started the first Puerto Rican Festival in recognition of her heritage, she decided that highlighting the beauty of all Latino countries would be a bigger success. In 1979, Lawrence’s population was at 72,043, with 22% of its population of Puerto Rican descent and a total latino population of 60%. With the realization that many of our families were merging their families with residents of other Latino countries, she decided on creating a festival that would afford representatives from all the different Latino countries residing in Lawrence. And thus Semana Hispana in Lawrence held its first celebration in 1979 with a week of events that ranged from beauty contests to Nation Nights to a luncheon to weekend activities in the local park.
Over the years, Lawrence has grown for our Latino community as evident by the growth of Latino’s business owners, Latino’s homes owners, Latino politicians and the Latino population. As of 2014, Lawrence’s population was at 78,197 with Latinos comprising 74% of its residents. Of 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, Lawrence ranked 4th of the largest Puerto Ricans communities in the state. They have now have been joined by residents from Latino countries from Central America and South American.
Along with the growth, so has Semana Hispana in Lawrence. We now celebrate Latino cultures over various events spread over two months. One of the most popular events is the VIP Luncheon. This event was developed so as to invite community residents to a luncheon to thank them for helping Latino distinguished speaker to give a talk on their individual contributions to our communities.