Centro Library and Archives Inaugurates Its New Home in El Barrio

 

More than 300 friends, supporters, elected officials, and community leaders from throughout the New York Tri-State area came out to celebrate the October 21 inauguration of Centro’s Library and Archives’ new home in East Harlem, the heart of the Puerto Rican diaspora.

 

  “Our new home has everything we imagined we would have:  a beautiful reading room where we honor our heritage, twenty-four/seven climate control led facilities that meet the rigorous preservation standards, and the most advanced technologies for our staff to continue their excellent work,” said Edwin Meléndez, Centro’s director. “And, our new home is in El Barrio, a place of great historical value and cultural heritage for the Puerto Rican community.”

Meléndez added, “We celebrate this new home with a renewed commitment to our historical preservation and educational mission.”

 

Hunter College president Jennifer Raab welcomed attendees, who included Congressman José Serrano and State assemblyman Robert Rodríguez.

Rabb said it was an extraordinary pleasure to celebrate in the community. “Hunter College and CUNY provides to Centro space, beautiful and efficient space, that is equal to the value of the extraordinary archives of Centro,” she said. “I think that is really what we celebrate tonight.”

 

She presented Nelida Pérez, former director of the Centro Library and Archives, with a lifetime achievement award for her 30 years of service to build the largest library and archives of its kind in the country, which Pérez described as a labor of love.

“I’m happy to accept the award on behalf of all of those whose efforts over the years have made this Library and Archives the uniquely valuable resource it is today, particularly the staff of the Library and Archives,” Pérez said. “And most importantly the donors, the papers, and records who had the faith and vision to entrust their treasures to this institution. I feel fortunate to have had the wonderful opportunity to direct this work.”

Pérez began working at Centro in 1975 after graduating with a master’s of library science degree from Columbia University. She remembered her early days. She needed a job and wanted to work in the public library system at a time when the city was going through a financial crisis and had a hiring freeze. When Centro decided to hire a librarian full time, Pérez took over the fledging library and her work at Centro became a lifelong passion. In the mid-1980s, the archives were added with the mission to identify, collect, preserve and make the history and culture of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora available.

“It was like discovering buried treasure and bringing it to light,” she said.

While working full time, Pérez received a master’s degree in history and archival management from New York University. The Centro Library and Archives has always been committed to providing public access to the award winning library. Pérez believes the move to East Harlem makes sense because it will make the Library and Archives more visible and accessible to the community at large, which is fundamental.
While Pérez retired in 2007, there are things she misses about her old job.

“Mostly, I miss the awe of young Puerto Rican students at finding so many things relating to themselves at a space dedicated to their own history and culture,” she said. “The joy of someone who found the only existing photo of a beloved relative in a collection, the thrill of discovery so often expressed by researchers, and working with donors and record creators as they struggled to let go of precious possessions in order to make them available to others, understanding that they were helping to fill in the gaps in their community’s history, providing building blocks toward expanding knowledge for generations by allowing their stories to be told. The products of historians, diverse scholars, filmmakers, writers, and others give testimony to the value of these sources.”

Congressman Serrano said it is fitting to have Centro in East Harlem as a way of highlighting and documenting the contributions of the pioneering Latino community in New York City.

“When I came here from Puerto Rico, from Mayaguez, in 1950,” he said, “it wasn’t easy being a Puerto Rican in New York. Today it isn’t easy being a Dominican, a Colombian, a Mexican, or any other Latino in New York. But as I often tell them in the most diplomatic and soft way, it’s much easier being a Latino in New York because Puerto Ricans opened the doors to create New York City a bilingual town.”

The event, which included music and Puerto Rican food, was also a community reception and celebration of Centro’s new exhibition,  Labor,  at the new Hunter College East Harlem Art Gallery.  Labor showcases the work of artists Melissa Calderón, Miguel Luciano, Antonio Martorell, Juan Sánchez, and Nitza Tufiño. Exhibit co-curators, Susana Torruela Leval and Antonio Martorell , credit Centro’s archive holdings on the Puerto Rican diaspora labor experience as the inspiration for the art show. Artists used the archives for their research to create their pieces. A beautiful catalog is available for sale at the gallery.

The Centro Library and Archives, housed at the new Lois V. and Samuel J. Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, is located at 2180 Third Avenue at 119 Street.  The gallery’s artwork, on display until January 6, 2012, is visible to people walking by the space.

The Centro Library and Archives is the world’s only institutions dedicated to collecting, preserving, and disseminating the story of the Puerto Rican diaspora. The collections include books, newspapers, government documents, music, photographs, manuscripts, and other resources that chronicle the history and contributions of Puerto Ricans.

The library collection is made up of more than 25,000 books, 2,500 theses, and more than 500 films. The archives includes documents of historic significance, more than 40,000 images, and hundreds of oral histories. Important aims achieved in  Centro’s new space are to be visibility and  accessibility.

 

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