Centro Library and Archives Awarded Grant to Process Two Collections of Pioneering Puerto Rican Women

By: Madonna Hernandez

Centro was recently awarded a $14k grant in order to process two collections from a pair of trailblazing Puerto Rican women: Olga Méndez and Elba Cabrera. Each of them aimed to ignite change within the political, social and cultural spheres. The award is a Documentary Heritage Program grant from the New York State Archives, which is a unit of the New York State Education Department. It will allow for the hiring of archival staff and further processing of the two collections in order to make them available to the public.

“We are proud to receive the financial support from DHP for the arrangement and description of these valuable collections. The State Archives have been very supportive to us since our inception, as the only archives exclusively devoted to document Puerto Ricans statewide. This project will disseminate the life and achievements of these two outstanding Puerto Rican leaders,” said senior archivist Pedro Juan Hernandez.

The Puerto Rican communities in New York City during the 1970s and early 80s were a microcosm of the country at large. It was an era of tremendous economic struggle for the nation as a result of a recession following the Vietnam War, which included high unemployment rates. Puerto Ricans were at the intersection of numerous sociopolitical issues. The efforts and accomplishments of New York State Senator Olga Méndez and community and cultural advocate Elba Cabrera, as a result can be viewed as especially noteworthy.

They represent the multifaceted way women served to inspire their communities within the U.S. as they established their changing roles within the workforce. Their achievements, in retrospect, are all the more substantial when taking into consideration the ongoing local and national debate for gender equality and their roles as bilingual minorities.

Olga Méndez (1925-2009) was the first Puerto Rican woman elected to a state legislature in the United States mainland. She came to prominence in the East Harlem political arena initially as the daughter-in-law of Tony Méndez, the first Puerto Rican district leader in Manhattan, and eventually on her own merits as the first Puerto Rican in the New York State Senate. She became involved in the fight for better government and emerged into an active leader in the area of voter registration drives throughout the nation. Méndez served in the New York state Senate for 13 consecutive terms, from 1978 until 2004.

Elba Cabrera was one of three sisters, the other two being noteworthy leaders within the Puerto Rican community themselves: Evelina Lopez Antonetty (founder of the United Bronx Parents, Inc.-a community based organization) and Lillian Lopez (NYPL Librarian and Administrator for the South Bronx Project- a model library outreach project, 1967-1972). She worked tirelessly for many cultural and educational institutions. She also served as a chair for the Friends of Centro and remains an active volunteer to Centro’s Library and Archives, as well as an instrumental part of the “100 Puerto Ricans” campaign.

The papers of Cabrera and Méndez document the tremendous role that leaders and activists played in helping to shape the future of a community at the crossroads of underrepresentation and political and cultural visibility. This grant will allow Centro to make these invaluable resources become a part of the broader history of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora, within Centro’s Archives.