Frank Bonilla, the founder of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, was a person dedicated to serving the Puerto Rican community. Much is known about his academic career and studies in Latin America before Centro began, however by understanding his work, impact, and life at Centro we gain a better knowledge of who he was, why his work is so critical to minorities, and why he was a great leader

In an interview, Pedro Pedraza, a member of the original staff of Centro, said that while some believe that political activism should be kept separate from academic studies, Bonilla’s stance was clear – to do something beneficial for the community one had to engage in advocacy, activism, and organizing work as an essential aspect of the research process itself.

The radical idea of having the community participate in the research
process was instituted at Centro with the creation of an advisory community board called the Directiva. The Directiva members presented ideas for research that guided the Centro’s research agenda and the actual studies undertaken. The structure of the Directiva was similar to other committees with participation of practitioners, advocates, students and faculty. This practice of inclusion would enable Centro to get information from the field, not only from the academy. “He put a lot of work into this to find out what the community needed,” Pedraza said.

Community members and researchers also worked together from different areas of study, such as history, culture, language, policy, etc., in interdisciplinary teams. This was productive because researchers would collaborate to gain a more holistic understanding, to enhance each others work and develop more critical perspectives.
Decisions were made by consensus within a steering committee, not
solely by Bonilla, Pedraza said. Even when Bonilla disagreed with the
vote he would abide by the consensus. “His style of leadership was not to tell you what to do, but to assist you to come up with the answers yourself,” Pedraza said.

Bonilla was not limited to helping only Puerto Ricans. Although Puerto
Ricans made up the majority of Latinos in New York during the 1970s,
Bonilla’s previous work showed obvious interest in Latin America, African Americans, and the exploitation of all, including working class and gender perspectives. Pedraza explained that Bonilla saw a difference between oppression and exploitation and fought against both and their manifestations. “He was just generally interested in opposing inequality in all forms.”

In 1986, while at Centro, Bonilla co-founded the Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR), the first academic research organization stateside to address Latino issues on a national level. Beginning with eight universities, it now comprises over twenty working together to study the global, national and economic forces affecting Latinos in the U.S.

Pedraza said that he never met a man with such patience to see things
through and a work ethic to match. He said Bonilla left a secured position at Stanford in order to become the Centro director. He was extremely focused and committed, but he also knew how to have fun. He knew much about wine, was a good dancer, and threw great parties, Pedraza said. “It wasn’t just analysis; he enjoyed his culture.”

Interview with Pedro Pedraza by Camilo Salas, Centro.

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