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CENTRO: CONTRIBUTIONS & CHALLENGES

By María Josefa Canino, Professor Emerita, Rutgers University, and Andrés Torres, Distinguished Lecturer, Lehman College. April 2009

Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, is a uniquely innovative university-based research institute located at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY), and dedicated to the interdisciplinary study and interpretation of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. It houses the oldest and largest Latino research and archival institution in the Northeast United States. The Centro’s twofold mission is:

1) to collect, preserve and provide access to archival and library resources documenting the history and culture of Puerto Ricans; and

2) to produce, facilitate and disseminate interdisciplinary research about the diasporic experiences of Puerto Ricans and to link this scholarly inquiry to social action and policy debates.

In its 39-year history, Centro has evolved into a major research and educational resource center generating singular contributions at the intersections of political economy, history and Puerto Rican migration and work, community formation, language and comparative culture, and social policy analyses. In addition to scholarly books and scientific papers in national and international journals and forums, its body of work includes the acclaimed Evelina López Antonetty Research Collection, and the prize-winning CENTRO Journal.

The Evelina Lopez Antonetty Research Collection was awarded the 2002 Debra E. Bernhardt Annual Archives Award for Excellence in Documenting New York’s History. It serves all of City University and draws researchers, students, and the general public from throughout the country and abroad.

The Centro Archives, also known as the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, is the sole repository of the personal papers of pediatrician and health advocate Helen Rodríguez Trias; institution builder and educator Antonia Pantoja; first Puerto Rican librarian in New York Pura Belpré; activists Richie Pérez, Manuel Díaz, Lourdes Torres, and José Velázquez; human rights defender Ruth Reynolds; Nuyorican poet and writer Pedro Pietri; Judge and Assemblyman Felipe Torres; pioneer labor organizer Jesús Colon; Congressman Robert García; scholars Raquel Hernández, José Hernández, William Díaz, Sonia Nieto, and Andrés Torres; and of State Senator Olga Méndez, among other community leaders and scholars.

Institutional records of the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States (OGPRUS 1950-1988), ASPIRA, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, and the 1935 Special Census of Puerto Rico, are also held at the Archives.

Complementing these unrivaled primary records is a rich collection of books, pamphlets, reports, doctoral dissertations, periodicals and newspapers, vertical files, films, databases, audio and video tapes, manuscripts, microfilm, musical recordings, art work, prints, posters, and photographs.

The indexed and abstracted CENTRO Journal biannually presents refereed scholarly articles in the humanities, social and natural sciences, as well as interpretive essays, interviews, fiction, reviews and art. It is the only academic journal publishing work about Puerto Rico and its diasporic communities. Special issues have featured guest editors on topics as varied as the Education of the Puerto Rican Diaspora, Puerto Rican Music and Dance, Puerto Rican Queer Sexualities, Latino film and Video Images, Race and Identity, A Community at Risk: the Health of Puerto Ricans, and Functions and Valorization of Language in Puerto Rico.

The bilingual journal has welcomed comparative analyses of Puerto Ricans with other racialized ethnic groups, particularly other Latinos and African Americans. Now in its nineteenth year, this publication is one of the Centro’s most important links to diverse audiences. Like the Library and Archives, it too has received recognition from prestigious professional groups: "The Best Cover" and "Best Overall Journal" (2004) from the American Graphic Designers Association, and two American Inhouse Design Award in 2007 for the spring and fall 2006 issues.

A redesigned Centro website was unveiled in 2007 to provide users with details of ongoing research, together with a selection of reports, policy briefs, and working papers available as PDFs, and links to CENTRO Journal, archival records, and to the FBI reports on Puerto Ricans. Summaries of the titles in the Centro publications catalogue are also available. The Digital Projects Gallery provides various online exhibitions and digital images.

Together with a calendar of events, and the Centro News, this is a vital and growing web resource for anyone interested in Puerto Rican history and culture. Furthermore, Centro has entered the domain of computer-based education aids with its first CD-Rom, Puerto Ricans in the USA, 1898-1999; and of video documentary with a history of Puerto Rican and Latino involvement and impact on New York State politics: Politics con Sabor.

Among its programs are competitive awards to faculty and young scholars: the Puerto Rican Diaspora and the CUNY/Faculty Grants, Dissertation Fellowships, and Puerto Rican Studies Faculty Fellows. Centro has also been in the forefront of creating mechanisms and networks for emerging scholars, musicians and artists sponsoring tertulias (talks, lectures), media and gallery events, film festivals, concerts, symposia, and panel and book presentations open to the general public.

There is broad consensus that the extraordinarily creative work of Centro has advanced the field of Puerto Rican Studies and influenced the debates of social scientists both in the US and Puerto Rico.

Centro Director Edwin Melendez comments on the institution’s impact on this new field of inquiry: 

"Centro researchers established a foundation for the intellectual field of Puerto Rican studies, and since its origin has provided unique insights for our understanding of the Diaspora and for the incorporation of Puerto Ricans into communities across the United States. Subsequently, Centro promoted an examination of this experience in the context of a broader Latino experience, and in relation to other racial minorities in the country. This intellectual contribution has been matched by a methodical effort to collect and preserves archival and other resources ‘documenting the history and culture of Puerto Ricans.’ Today, the award-winning Centro library serves as an example to others on how an academic effort transcends the narrow confines of intellectual inquiry and becomes a vehicle for the empowerment of the community."

Established in 1973 by a coalition of CUNY students, community activists and academics from the fledgling Puerto Rican Studies Departments, Centro’s origins are rooted in the largely black and Puerto Rican student-based efforts to secure both open admissions access to public higher education and the creation of ethnic studies academic programs. The founders viewed the newly emergent field of Puerto Rican Studies as a “crucial nexus for the study of economic, political, and cultural processes of import ranging far beyond the social problems of a single minority concentrated in one United States city.” Frank Bonilla, founding director of Centro, was instrumental in its formation until his retirement in 1993.

In his twenty-year tenure, Bonilla provided the intellectual, political, and organizational leadership that helped to define the field of Puerto Rican Studies and to firmly establish the CENTRO as a vital academic and community resource. Within a short time of its founding, the CENTRO’s organizational structure and research agendas were shaped by commitments to collective governance, scholarship in service of community, and broad accessibility.

Particularly in the earlier decades the Centro filled a void in scholarly resources and critical research studies. The first Puerto Rican History conference (1974) of young U.S.-based and island researchers, the Feria de Expresión Puertorriqueña (1975), and the Migration Cuaderno (1977) provided intellectual ferment to the field of Puerto Rican Studies and plied social class dimensions to the history and cultural identities forged in the metropolis and island contexts. Ground-breaking Centro scholarship utilized analytical perspectives from the field of political economy to understand the persistent poverty and marginalization of Puerto Ricans in U.S. urban centers. Central to both theoretical and empirical work was the proposition that the circularity of the migration associated with U.S. and island labor market dynamics and the concretization of these forces in the ebb and flow of Puerto Rican stateside communities was the result of the underlying structural expulsion and attraction of workers as required by capital. Researchers produced a series of seminal publications: Labor Migration Under Capitalism, History and Migration Task Force (Monthly Review Press, 1979); Sources for the Study of the Puerto Rican Migration 1879-1930, History Task Force (Research Foundation, CUNY, 1982), and Industry and Idleness, F. Bonilla and R. Campos (CENTRO de Estudios Puertorriqueños, 1986).

In this cutting-edge tradition but with Centro’s scope widened to Puerto Ricans in a broader Latino experience, Juan Flores’ Divided Borders (Arte Público Press, 1993) introduced social class and politics to Puerto Rican cultural identity studies.

The cultural expression of working class Puerto Ricans in interaction with African Americans and other racial minorities is the subject matter of these new conceptual lenses. Two significant reports similarly made theoretical inroads in cultural studies. Focusing on gender in relation to race and class, Centro researchers described how disenfranchised women negotiated circumstances of inequality: "Responses to Poverty among Puerto Rican Women: Identity, Community and Cultural Citizenship”, R. Benmayor, R.Torruellas, and A. Juarbe (1992), and Benmayor, Torruellas, A. Goris, and A. Juarbe, "Affirming Cultural Citizenship in the Puerto Rican Community: The El Barrio Popular Education Program."

But Centro broke ground as well in its links with the Puerto Rican stateside community and the general public. Other early contributions include tools widely used by students and faculty. The Guide to Puerto Rican Studies in Institutions of Higher Education in the United States 1985-1986, and the National Directory of Puerto Rican Professionals in Higher Education are two examples of readily accessible materials. The organization of the Puerto Rican Migration Consortium, projects with the City University Mutual Broadcasting Instructional Network (C.U.M.B.I.N.) and public television’s WNET’s series “Realidades,” the founding of organizations such as the Puerto Rican/Latino Education Roundtable, P.R.O.G.R.E.S.S., Inc. (Puerto Rican Organization for Growth, Research, Education and Self-Sufficiency, Inc.), and the production and distribution of the films Manos a la Obra: The Story of Operation Bootstrap and Plena Is Work, Plena Is Song, expanded the definitions of academic productivity by providing more inclusive models of participatory research, activist scholarship, and critical leadership. 

From its inception, the Centro’s openness to untapped sources of knowledge and the application of alternative paradigms and research methodologies linked its academic purpose with the engagement of an empowered community: " [w]e must continue to seek a place within the university from which to articulate the social and intellectual problems of our community while reaffirming the intent to define and control our own intellectual agenda . . . . To create new knowledge and quickly and comprehensibly transfer it to a long-denied community is the principal goal of all our effort.” As a protagonist in these contentious spaces, the Centro was at once an expression of collective self-affirmation and an attempt to transform the academy from within. The hope of social change that it embodied fueled the construction of new relationships that would slowly bridge the divide between the university and the racial and ethnic minorities outside its walls.

Recent research efforts have influenced policy and received media attention. At the Federal and Puerto Rico levels, Centro provided institutional support and document analysis for Congressman José Serrano in his request of formerly secret documents released to him by the Police of Puerto Rico, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and other agencies. A website is a Centro educational project containing the files and other related tools (pr-secretfiles). Former research director Ramón Bosque Pérez spearheaded the Centro effort co-editing with J. Colón Morera Puerto Rico under Colonial Rule: Political Persecution and the Quest for Human Rights (SUNY Press, 2006 ), and an earlier book which helped legitimate demands for the secret files: Las Carpetas: Persecución Política y Derechos Civiles en Puerto Rico (1997). The latter was awarded an Honorable Mention in 1998 by the Puerto Rico Chapter of PEN International Writers Association. At the local New York level a recent policy analysis ‘The Decline of the Puerto Rican fulltime Faculty in CUNY-1981-2002’ has resulted in a Chancellor level committee of CUNY presidents, and the establishment of an Office of Faculty Outreach and Recruitment, charged with expanding the pool of graduate students and faculty members of Puerto Rican descent for vacancies throughout CUNY. Other policy analyses available on the Centro website address the economic consequences of inadequate education, patterns of migration and settlement, low- end rental market affordability and availability in relation to housing overcrowding, and the state of Latino health and mental health.

In conjunction with its original work, Centro has sponsored the editing of the unpublished, historical manuscript of early 20th century labor organizer and leader Bernardo Vega and made possible the Spanish edition, as well as the translation into English of Memoirs of Bernardo Vega: A Contribution to the History of Puerto Rican Community in New York, edited by César Andreu Iglesias, editor, and translated by Juan Flores. (1984, Monthly Review Press) Along with translations, Centro anthologies include: Conversación entre Escritoras del Caribe Hispano, compiled by Cocco De Filippis & S. Rivera (1999), and Taino revival: Critical Perspectives on Puerto Rican Identity and Cultural Politics edited by Haslip-Viera (1999). Former Centro director Matos-Rodriguez and librarian Pedro Juan Hernández produced Pioneros: Puerto Ricans in New York City 1896-1948 (2001), a sample of images of the first wave of migrants before WWII.

Among its many accomplishments, Centro has boldly created new spaces from which to forge collaborations with other research institutions, scholars, and marginalized communities. It was a founding member and first host institution (1988-1995) of the Inter-University Program for Latino Research (IUPLR), a national consortium currently composed of twenty-four Latino research centers created in 1986 as part of the then nascent field of Latino studies. As part of the project “Latinos in a Changing Economy,” Dr. Bonilla assembled a multinational team to examine the impact of international, national, and regional forces in shaping Latino/a labor force participation. The result of this collaboration was the highly praised Borderless Borders: U.S. Latinos, Latin Americans, and the Paradox of Interdependence (1998), co-edited by Bonilla, E. Meléndez, R. Morales and M. Torres. Other publications that were the product of this fertile collaboration include: Latinos in a Changing US Economy: Comparative Perspectives on Growing Inequality, F. Bonilla, and R. Morales, eds. (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1993), and Latino Cultural Citizenship, W. Flores and R. Benmayor (Beacon, 1997).

Current research initiatives include a multi-partner, Ford foundation supported collaborative effort to produce papers under the heading Rethinking Labor Market Intermediation examining the evolution of low wage labor markets in the contemporary economy. Titles for the four part project are Do Day Labor Worker Centers Make a Difference (E. Melendez, CENTRO), New Settlement Patterns of Immigrants and the Low-wage Labor Force (S. Bohn, Public Policy Institute of California), Immigration and the Informal Economy (E. Owens, Cornell University and S. Bohn), and Multi-Ethnic Economic Justice Coalitions: Frameworks, Challenges, and Opportunities (Andres Torres, CENTRO).

The breadth and depth of Centro productivity, its leading role in building the research capacity and scholarship of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, its exceptional library and archival collections, partnerships and ties to academic, advocacy, and community-based constituencies across racial, national and ethnic groupings, have added immeasurably to the language and vocabulary of academic discourse and policy debate within CUNY and the Puerto Rican and Latino communities nationwide. In addressing the major social, political, and economic inequities faced by Puerto Rican citizens, Centro’s research holds significant implications for Latinos and other marginalized groups in the United States. Its researchers and policy analysts, Library and Archives, Journal and Newsletter, community networks and outreach projects, have extended their reach beyond the Puerto Rican origins that birthed this venerable institution. Centro, in its many iterations and reinventions, has helped forge the research, policy, and advocacy agendas of current and future generations of scholars, other professionals and activists.

In his statement Towards a Shared Vision for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies , Director Edwin Meléndez foresees ongoing challenges from a rapidly changing economic, political and social environment. He observes that continuing to be a part of the solution to the intractable problems of economic disparities and racial discrimination will require fresh approaches. Internal realignment and prioritization of its research agenda, new initiatives with CUNY Puerto Rican Studies programs to identify curriculum gaps, explorations of student service-learning and project based pedagogies, active support for young scholars, and strengthening partnerships with Puerto Rican community leaders and other Latino and African American research centers and academics, are central to these emergent strategies.

Centro sights are set on the following goals:

  1. Promoting interdisciplinary and collaborative knowledge building within a relevant research agenda in the field of Puerto Rican Studies
  2. Building the premier archival collection and library resource center documenting the history and culture of Puerto Ricans in the United States
  3. Providing social policy analysis and partnering in social change efforts directed at critical social problems
  4. Preparing future eminent scholars for the field of Puerto Rican Studies
  5. Attracting extraordinary research and teaching faculty and students to CUNY and to the Centro endeavor
  6. Fostering new pedagogies that celebrate and value cultural and historical heritage of Puerto Rican communities
  7. Engaging the university and Centro’s multiple stakeholders (stateside Puerto Ricans and Puerto Rico, Latinos in the U.S., African Americans and other U.S. minorities, New York City and New York State communities) in efforts complementary to the Centro mission at Hunter College, City University of New York

The lodestar now as in the beginning of Centro continues to be that of tackling the most significant intellectual and policy problems confronting Puerto Ricans in the context of the broader Latino and African American communities, and having academic, policy, and community impact.