He waited nearly 60 years to receive the combat medals he won in Korea. But the love and accolades of area Latino leaders for Celestino Cordova as the man on whose shoulders they stand meant every bit as much as the overdue honor from his days with a Puerto Rican combat unit.
Admirers gathered at the Fair Haven Elderly Apartments community room on Saltonstall Avenue Monday to witness U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro pin on 81-year old Cordova the combat infantry badge, sharp shooter badge and several others.
Cordova earned these honors during service, including hand-to-hand combat, with a reconnaissance unit within the fabled Borinqueneers of the all-Puerto Rican 65th U.S. Army Regiment during the Korean War.
A man of quiet grace and exceptional modesty with much else to do in his life, Cordova simply forgot about physically picking up the medals. They were designated for him to receive on discharge papers after eight years in the service; that would be 1958.
Recently when he applied for veterans benefits due to a hearing problem, the oversight was noticed. DeLauro saw to it that the awards were forthcoming.
“I’m very humbled,” Cordova said about finally receiving the badges.
DeLauro and area political leaders such as Fair Haven Alderwoman Migdalia Castro knew Cordova in the life he made for himself post-army and the opportunities he made for future Latino leaders in New Haven.
He founded the Spanish Cultural Association, which was headquartered on Congress Avenue in the mid 1960s. There, 12-year-old Migdalia twirled a baton and taught in one of his youth groups. Current Hill Alderman Jorge Perez was the baseball coordinator then. Future, now former, New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz was one of several dozen Latino high school grads whomt Cordova recognized through staging the city’s first annual Hispanic awards dinner.
“It took a lot of brave work for Celestino to open doors. He’s a silent hero,” said Migdalia Castro (pictured). She called him her friend, mentor, and father.
“The immigrant experience is highly romanticized,” said DeLauro in reference to Cordova’s achievement. “It’s tough, brutal, and he succeeded. These medals are richly deserved.”
Among the other achievements she cited were his establishing the first Spanish newspaper in New Haven, and helping to bring the statewide Puerto Rican parade for the first time to New Haven. In 1964, he was one of the founders of an early civic and self-help organization, the Latin Council. It became JUNTA for Progressive Action in 1971.
DeLauro recalled the hard-fought 1975 Democratic mayoral primary between Frank Logue and Bart Guida. She ran Logue’s campaign. The Hispanic community, led by Cordova and “Gumpy” DelRio, went for Guida.
“That’s when we started building bridges to the Hispanic community,” DeLauro said with affection.
Also in attendance and offering expressions of admiration were Celestino’s nephew Lt. Rene Cordova, assistant drill master of the New Haven Fire Department (pictured); former Board of Aldermen President Tomas Reyes, Alderman Joey Rodriguez, State Rep. Juan Candelaria, State Sen. Martin Looney, and Democratic Town Chairwoman Susie Voigt.
Mayoral and aldermanic proclamations in praise of Cordova were also read.
Future pilot, Second Lt. Matthew Deming, about to graduate from the Air Force Academy, was on hand to thank Cordova for his service.
Cordova told him to stick with it and to become a general.
Cordova himself is sticking with his service as well.
In addition to continuing to be Ward 16 co-chair, he’s a member of the statewide Democratic Hispanic Caucus, the coordinator of the tree- planting in the Saltonstall Avenue area with Urban Resources Initiative; and, tellingly for a modest former military man, he’s an active member of the city’s Peace Commission.
With the Peace Commission, on Sept. 18 he’s organizing an international day of peace to be celebrated at Criscuolo Park.
Cordova still works five hours a day, with elderly people, as he used to work with kids. As the bilingual coordinator for the South Central Connecticut Agency on Aging, he places older volunteers in the New Haven schools. He’s the father of six and has excellent genes on his side. His mother lived to be 106; she passed away just recently.
When it came time for him to make his remarks, Cordova said, “Peace on Earth! We are a family. I feel humble, like a little kid.”