March 8, 2007
By DIANE WEAVER DUNNE, Hartford Business Journal Writer
During the late 1960s, a bus would drive around the city of Hartford before sun-up to pick up young adolescents to work at nearby tobacco farms.
Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez, at 14 years old, was among the city youth who got up around 5 a.m. in order to be ready for the bus trip to a Kennedy Road tobacco farm in Windsor where he and his older brother, William, both worked.
It was backbreaking, labor-intensive work where temperatures could rise well over 100 degrees on a hot summer day under the netting used to shade the valuable tobacco plants eventually used as wrappers for cigars. Field workers would slide down the aisles on their bottoms to pick the tobacco leaves with a partner.
The more they picked, the more they got paid, Perez recalled.
Workers’ hands often turned orange from the plants. They came home filthy and exhausted after a day in the field. “It was a tough and smelly job,” Perez said, adding, “Your bed became your best friend.”
But it was “good money” for the youngsters, and Perez said the hard work gave him a sense of pride.
“When you are 14, getting a paycheck is a big deal,” he said. “Having the responsibility to show up to work each day and having the pride of a paycheck that you earned was a lesson that you learned.”
He and his brother turned some of their earnings over to their mother, set aside a portion to buy school clothes, and then “the rest went to being a kid with money in the neighborhood. … After that, not much was left,” Perez said.
But it was an experience that taught him something else.
“I was convinced that was not what I wanted to do for a living,” he said. “The longer the summer went on, the tougher it got. You built up your stamina, but it didn’t get any easier.”
Perez worked at the tobacco farm for one entire summer, and for half of the following summer, until he found a job at Sigourney Park.
During the school year, Perez worked at the former Sage-Allen department store luncheonette, eventually becoming the supervisor of the school crew evenings and weekends.
Later on, he worked at a furniture store, Luis on Main Street.
He jokes that the farthest he ever traveled to work was to that tobacco farm on Kennedy Road.
“I went right into community work right after high school,” he said, joining Vista as a volunteer in 1978. “Windsor was the farthest that I went.”