On Friday afternoon at Greenwich High School, despite it being last period, and students were eager to start their weekends, hundreds attended a talk in the performing arts center by State Rep Hector Arzeno.
The occasion was to mark National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Arzeno, originally from Buenos Aires Argentina, held several hundred students’ attention as he shared story of how his father left his young family and his mother, who did not have a college degree, took numerous jobs to support Arzeno and his sister.
Arzeno finished at a boys Jesuit high school on a scholarship.
Afterward, he said, “University was an option, but also I knew I’d have to work. What was supposed to be a five year university took me seven years to complete. It’s important not to forget from where we come from.”
Arzeno’s said his first paid job was making photocopies in the student center at university.
Principal Ralph Mayo, who serves on the board of Barbara’s House (formerly CCI) with Arzeno, described him as a good friend and standout volunteer at GHS.
“This man volunteers more hours in this community than anyone I know,” Mayo said.
“Heart and soul, that’s what he is,” Mayo added. “State Reps don’t get paid much, I’d be surprised if it paid for his gas. He’s not doing it for monetary reasons, but because he wants kids to succeed.”
Arzeno spoke from the heart, saying he had been a longtime tour guide at the high school, and enjoyed getting feedback from prospective families.
He also volunteered making photocopies in the Science department, which this time had significance, as he was able to do it as a volunteer.
Arzeno first visited the US in 1970, and in 1974 returned for a training program with what is now JP Morgan Chase.
In 1987 he became a US citizen.
He has 40 years of experience in international finance, and has served in executive positions at leading institutions in Europe and the US.
Here in Greenwich Arzeno raised four children. All of them graduated from Greenwich High School.
Arzeno described learning the rules of the chamber in Hartford, including rules against political signs and against inflammatory language.
“A general rule is you debate the subject before you, not the person,” he said.
“Dress not only for the occasion, but for the location,” he added.
Lastly, he said it was important to always assume you are on camera.
He said sometimes debates continue all day, and legislators bring their lunch with them.
He recalled one day he was eating a sandwich when the Governor texted him and asked if it was ham and cheese.
“That that was the last time I brought a sandwich into the chamber,” he joked.
Arzeno said there were also unwritten rules.
“If you are planning to introduce bills, be willing to make changes, if you’re not willing to do so, don’t waste people’s time. More than 95% of bills that pass are bipartisan,” he said. “Listen more and talk less. And when you don’t know something, say so, do not make things up.”
Arzeno said legislators learn early they do not represent themselves.
“We represent our constituents and our neighbors,” he said. “I try to keep in mind that at the end of the day, principles transcend parties.”
Lastly, he said an important lesson in politics was to be prepared to lose.
“I lost in 2020,” he said, recalling his failed campaign against Republican Harry Arora in 2020. “When you lose, call your opponent and wish him well. Accept the results of the election.”
Arzeno challenged Peter Sherr in November 2022 and won. In fact, Democrats swept all three House seats representing Greenwich.
During Q&A, a student asked Arzeno about immigration in the US, noting there are estimates of 113,000 undocumented immigrants in Connecticut.
Arzeno said that in Connecticut’s 4th Congressional district of 750,000 people, 20% were immigrants.
(The largest group of foreign-born Connecticut residents comes from Latin America with 38% of the state’s foreign-born residents.)
“We are a very diversified country,” he said. “And in my opinion immigration shouldn’t be a problem in the US.”
Arzeno talked about how early waves of immigration were woven into America’s history going back to the 1600s.
“Santa Fe was founded before Plymouth, with conquerors coming from the south,” he said.
He added that these influences were evident in names of cities and states. For example, Montana derived from montaña. (Montaña del Norte was the name given by early Spanish explorers to the entire mountainous region of the west.)
“In my opinion, what we are today as a country – immigration is part of our history. When you look at the immigration problems Europe has, those are huge, including people moving from Africa – and religious issues. We don’t have that. I always say, why is it a problem here in the US?”
“I’m not talking about opening he borders,” he said, but he added he’d like to see the situation with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) resolved. DACA is program created to protect eligible young adults who were brought to the US as children from deportation and to provide them with work authorization for temporary, renewable periods
“Why not compromise and see about solutions?” Arzeno asked.
Find more on National Hispanic Heritage Month here.
This article was updated to reflect Arzeno challenged Peter Sherr in 2022.