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Center for Puerto Rican Studies Looks to the Future
by Gene Roman
OCTOBER 23, 2002
It's always interesting to discover the inspiration behind an individual's choice of career. For Dr. Felix Matos Rodriguez, the Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, it was his teachers at Colegio San Ignacio, the Jesuit high school in San Juan, Puerto Rico that planted the seeds of his future academic career. It was here that he met a young Jesuit by the name of Fernando Pico.
"I became a historian because of Pico," he told me as we sat in his 14th floor office on the Hunter College campus. "Pico was a scholar-activist. He combined his commitment to teaching and counseling students with visits to prisons and work with the poor." Father Pico would go on to complete his Ph.D. in History at Johns Hopkins University and return to the University of Puerto Rico where he continues to inspire generations of students and is considered one of the Island's preeminent historians.
The Center, which Matos has headed since February 2000, was founded in 1973 and is the only university-based research institute in the United States devoted to the interdisciplinary study of the Puerto Rican experience. It is also the oldest and largest Latino research/archival institution in the Northeast. It's Library and Archives are the principal Puerto Rican Studies research collection in the Nation, and are the only library and archives in the State of New York exclusively dedicated to the documentation of the Puerto Rican and Latino experience.
The holdings include the records of major institutions and community organizations, such at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, ASPIRA of New York, the United Bronx Parents Association, and individuals such as: Oscar Garcia Rivera, the first Puerto Rican elected to public office in the United States in 1937; Antonia Pantoja, educator and founder of several Puerto Rican organizations in NYC; Pura Belpre, writer, folklorist and the first Puerto Rican to work as a librarian in the New York Public Library system; Clemento Soto Velez, one of the Puerto Rico's most important 20th century poets and staunch Independence advocate, and Eddie Mercado, a long-time Statehood and Republican Party Activist in NYC.
In 1992, in response to a coordinated lobbying effort by the Puerto Rican community in New York, then Governor Pedro Rossello transferred custody of the Records of the Migration Division of the Government of Puerto Rico, the largest collection of migration-related materials for an individual ethnic group in the United States, from the New York office of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration to the Centro's archives. This gift solidified the Centers national reputation because it was competing with a number of national universities, including Princeton University and the University of Puerto Rico, for custody of this prized collection.
On the afternoon of our interview, Matos Rodriguez was preparing to travel to Albany with Nelida Perez, the Center's Associate Director, to receive the 2002 Debra E. Bernhardt Annual Archives Award for Excellence in documenting New York's history from the New York State Board of Regents for its work in documenting the history of groups who traditionally have been omitted from the historical record. This is the second time the New York State Archives has recognized the Center's work--the first was in 1994 and was for excellence in archival work.
The Centro Journal, published since 1987, is the only academic journal devoted to publishing work about Puerto Rico and its diasporic communities. In the Fall of 2003, a special issue dedicated to Puerto Rican music will be published. The Center is actively seeking submissions for this issue from academics, musicians, ethnomusicologists, students, artists and music aficionados. Submission guideline can be found at the Centers website: www.centropr.org.
The CUNY/University of Puerto Rico (Intercambio) program and CUNY Caribbean Exchange Program, also housed at the Center, promote student/faculty exchanges between CUNY and Caribbean institutions. The Center also organizes a Speakers Forum--"Tertulias"--which brings distinguished academics, community leaders and experts to campus to speak on issues of importance to the Latino community.
Like any public institution involved in the area of public policy, the Center's life and work has not been without it's share of growing pains or controversy. For its first 20 years, the Centers public perception was that of an ideologically driven, left-wing hub of political advocacy on behalf of Puerto Rican independence and other issues.
A review of the themes covered by the Centro Journal between 1987-2000 seems to support this view. The Centers publications and agenda disproportionately highlights the life and work of individuals associated with the political left and the movement for Puerto Rican Independence, such as Pedro Albizu Campos, Jesus Colon, Antonia Pantoja and others. "That should tell you a lot," said one local Puerto Rican, Democratic party activist from New Jersey who preferred to remain anonymous. "They have yet to produce a comprehensive, empirically based, non-partisan study of the status question or bilingual education in the whole time they've been around. The evidence of their political bias is there for all to see."
According to a local advisory board member of the Citizens Educational Foundation of Puerto Rico, a non-partisan center advocating for a congressionally sponsored referendum to permanently resolve the political status of Puerto Rico, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, "the Center does some great work, but it's all one-dimensional and extremely biased in the name of cultural nationalism." One former official of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration under Governor Rossello put it this way: "I bet if you did a survey of their staff members, you wouldn't find too many people willing to support either a non-partisan effort to permanently resolve the Island's status or take a serious look at bilingual education. I don't think that a talented academic researcher who happened to support statehood would ever be hired there."
Matos Rodriguez admits that this kind of criticism has some validity "characteristic of the (Center's) early years, but for the present this "criticism doesn't hold." One of his hopes for the Center is to create a place where "Puerto Ricans of all political persuasions" can feel at home. Part of his future plans include the hiring of six new researchers to study the impact of educational, health and public policy issues on the Puerto Rican/Latino community. "We want to balance traditional research with policy and add historical depth to the Puerto Rican experience."
As the only university-based, research center committed to a comprehensive understanding of the Puerto Rican diasporic experience in the United States, the
Centers future work includes balancing the public perception that only Independence advocates, or those with left-wing political views are welcome.
Gene Roman is a Contributing Writer to Latin Long Island Magazine and a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at email@example.com.