Futuras Próceres─5 Puerto Ricans Giving Back to Their Community

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If you have had a chance to check out the Center for Puerto Rican Studies Archives (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?), the work we have done and do, one thing will become clear—Puerto Rican women are well represented in our archives, programs, initiatives, and articles. Rightly so. Puerto Rican women have played a significant role in shaping the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. From Felicitas Méndez, to Antonia Pantoja, to Pura Belpré, to Nicholasa Mohr, to Julia de Burgos, to Esmeralda Santiago, to Sandra Maria Estevez, and oh so many others. We are not shy to recognize them. Often. As it should be. Then there’s a cadre of powerful women who are leading the march today, filling the shoes of the amazing women that preceded them with much aplomb. They spearhead long-running organizations, emerging initiatives, from New York to San Francisco, all in efforts that make an impact in our communities. Here at Centro we like to call them nuestras futuras próceseres. You may not know the faces that are making a difference in our U.S. communities today, but I promise you you should know them. We’ll be talking about them for years to come.  

Frances Lucerna—Co-Founder and Executive Director, El Puente
If you live in Brooklyn…Scratch that. If you live in New York City, you will be hard pressed to not know of El Puente. Even if you don’t know of El Puente, you may have seen this community human rights and youth development institution in action. Frances Lucerna (alongside her husband Luis Garden Acosta) have established a unique membership model focusing on arts, wellness, and mentorship that help “young people really understand who they are in the world and who they are with in the world.” While they serve a diverse population, they mainly work with young Latinos in a neighborhood that is predominantly Puerto Rican and Dominican, forging leaders that contribute in meaningful ways to the community, such as Lemon Andersen.

Sharing the history of Puerto Rico with these youth is central to El Puente’s efforts. Lucerna explains, “I think for our young people, many of our young people have never even been to Puerto Rico…so opportunities for them, as we did when we took a group of young people to Vieques when we were involved in the struggle to get the Navy out of Vieques and we took a group of young people, and that’s an example of how powerful this kind of experience can be…for many of those young people who went to Vieques they had never gone to Puerto Rico…and here they were not only going to Puerto Rico, but they were going…with a real kind of opportunity to really make change.” 

Lucerna has been helping others make change since an early age. She was born in New York City, in the same Williamsburg neighborhood she now serves. “I had a great opportunity when I was a young girl to really find my soul…in dance, so I became a professional dancer and really came back to this community where I was born and raised to really share that with young people.” Before doing as much with El Puente, she did it through a program she started in 1980 for young women in professional arts training.  As a Puerto Rican, “being in a community where there is an intentionality around honoring our history, knowing where and how our culture, our contributions have made “real impact in terms of even the history of this country…” can be quite a transforming experience. Lucerna is key to that transformation.

Dr. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado—Executive Director, Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA)
Villa Victoria, the neighborhood in South End Boston that once stood up to the threat of urban development efforts, stands today as a vibrant reminder of the power of the Puerto Rican community in the United States to shape spaces and neighborhoods. The organization Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (IBA) is the powerful organization that made sure Puerto Ricans left and maintained a mark in the history of Boston. It continues to do so today with initiatives such as the Festival Betances, one of the longest running Latino Festivals in New England. Behind such a pillar of the community is Dr. Vanessa Calderón-Rosado, who helms the organization. Speaking of her role at IBA, she shares, “It is an honor to serve the Puerto Rican community in Boston, as well as the Latino community and other disenfranchised communities of color.” Dr. Calderón-Rosado accolades are many. She is not only the recipient of the prestigious Barr Foundation Fellowship and the ALPFA Excellence in Community Award, in 2010 she became the first Latina to be appointed to the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Massachusetts.

In speaking about how her roots and Puerto Rican identity informs her commitment to her Boston community, she shares, “I was born and raised in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico.  My own values and upbringing help me understand firsthand the struggles of the Puerto Rican people and the Puerto Rican diaspora. These experiences have emboldened my commitment to equity and social justice, and motivate me to keep fighting for better education, for decent affordable housing, for good job opportunities, for representation of Latinos in decision making tables, and for the celebration and reaffirmation of our heritage and identity though our arts and culture. I am so fortunate to work at IBA, a great community building organization founded by Puerto Rican activists in Boston in 1968.  My work allows me to match those aspirations with real opportunities for change in each one of these areas that I am so passionate about.  I hope that my work will open better and bigger opportunities for those who are struggling right now, and more importantly for our next generation. I am confident that we will do so.”

Betsy Casanas—Artist, Educator, Community Activits, Founder of Semilla and Seed on Diamond
The youngest of six in a tightknit family, Betsy Casanas encountered pivotal moments in her childhood that deeply informed and informs the trajectory she has taken since then. She recalls, “I grew up on 4th and Cambria. When I was a little kid, I was free to carelessly ride my bicycle around the neighborhood visiting my friends. At 14, that freedom was taken away when the streets in North Philadelphia became a war zone. Many of my childhood friends dropped out of school, started dealing on the corners, some got locked up, many were shot down and killed…especially the boys. In memory, murals began decorating our neighborhood walls. Growing up in North Philadelphia has impacted everything that I have done until now.”

Newly pregnant at 19, Betsy sought work at Taller Puertoririqueño, today led by another fierce Boricua Carmen Febo San Miguel. As luck would have it, during a second interview at the Education Building, the art teacher who was working there never showed up. I told the guy sitting behind the reception desk I was there for an interview…His response was ‘Oh you are an artist? Good! The art teacher never showed up and there is a classroom of junior high students in the back without a teacher’…4 months pregnant, I landed my first teaching job. One recommendation lead to another, and within two months I was working at another community organization, The Village of Arts and Humanities and NetworkArts Philadelphia. Days  before my son came into the world I was finishing up my first public mosaic on Frida Kahlo at a local high school in North Philadelphia. That year I was a full time student, I became a mother, I started teaching and began doing public art.” A self-described “overprotective Puerto Rican mother,” in 2007 Betsy started Semilla Arts Iniative, a transient grassroots initiative that uses art and artistic collaborations to foster social change in diverse communities and empower people. Part of the initiative is Seed on Diamond, a community-led community space right in the neighborhood that saw her become the model she is today.

Teresa Mejía—Executive Director, The Women’s Building
Teresa never imagined that she would leave Puerto Rico for good in 1992. And yet, that’s exactly what happened. What was meant to be a five day vacation in San Francisco turned into a permanent stint supporting self-determination, gender equality and social justice for underserved communities, and particularly immigrant Latinas. Teresa does as much as director of The Women’s Building, a woman-led non-profit in the Mission District that not only provides services to the underserved community in the area, it supports other organizations by providing them with affordable space, and supports community initiatives such as La Plaza 16, struggling to maintain affordable housing in the area.

After learning Teresa’s story, it’s no surprise why she felt home at such a resilient building upon setting foot in it. She grew up in Camuy, where she jokes “Coca Cola arrived in the 80s,” she grew up in the 60s, “where poverty was big and there was a sense of community.” She came from a family of social workers. Her mother, father, and sister were all social workers deeply committed to solving the main issues of their community. Teresa’s commitment to women, already strong because of her family, grew after a personal tragedy. She lost her mother, sister, and nieces to his sister’s ex-husband. “That changed my life completely, and I decided on that moment when I was 20 that I wanted to work as much as possible for the rest of my life with issues around domestic violence and other issues that affect women.” She did as much co-founding Brujeres and Encuentro de Mujeres, working at the Casa Protegida Julia de Burgos and the Comision para Asuntos de la Mujer. Her work at The Women’s Building dovetails from these early efforts. Testament to her resilience is how she rose through the ranks at The Women’s Building, going from receptionist to Executive Director.  

Beyond informing her commitment to women, Teresa’s identity as a Puerto Rican woman serves as a life compass. “Everywhere that I go…I have my Puerto Rican flag in the car…Isabel Allende came for a tour of The Women’s Building last week and I gave her a CD of music from el centro de la isla. Let me tell you there were moments…because I came from being a receptionist with a strong accent, I became the ED, and I understand that some people didn’t believe that I would do a good job…and every time that I have a hard time…when I was going to meet with a donor or a foundation, etc…before, I swear, before an important meeting I hear some Puerto Rican music because, I say, it reminds me of who I am and where I come from…that gives me a lot of strength.”

Jani Rose—Poet, Educator, Mother, Activist, Student, advocate. Founder, The School of Poetic Arts “La Sopa”
Capicu Culture. Anybody who is anybody in New York’s Latino artistic community knows of them, or has heard of them, or has a cousin who knows a guy who…you get the gist. In its 8 years since its founding, over 2,000 poets have participated in its open mic sessions. One of those poets happens to be Jani Rose, a renaissance soul making a difference in New York’s artistic and artistic education scene.  

Jani’s story is as fascinating as her poetry, “My grandparents came to New York from Sábana Grande and San Lorenzo, at the peak of Puerto Rican migration in 1953. He was a soldier in the Korean War. She was a factory worker. They landed in Wagner projects en El Barrio, where my mother, the first of 6, met my father, the third of 7. He was born in Vega Baja and lived on 115th and Pleasant Avenue. After having trained as a Marine in Vieques, they moved to the Bronx. I was born on 105th Street and 5th Avenue, Museum Mile, steps away from El Museo del Barrio and the place where my favorite poet, Julia de Burgos, transitioned. My mother was influenced by the Young Lords. We marched in protest of drugs in our streets, carrying picket signs and yelling at the actual drug dealers. We advocated for Latino public officials by contributing time to their campaigns.” Commitment to her community runs in her veins.

This commitment is what prompted Jani to start the School for Poetic Arts with the Capicu guys, George Torres and Juan “Papo Swiggity” Santiago. “I wrote with Acentos (Writers Workshop, Acentos Poetry Foundation) for many years and learned from some of the most incredible poets of color in the United States…After the Acentos workshops ended, people came to me and asked when we'd begin again. I felt that if I was being asked, it was my responsibility to provide this for our community…My mission with La Sopa is to build community through exploration of identity via the arts. La Sopa provides MFA quality workshops for those who are passionate about poetry… With every person we work with, we have watched ripples in our own community which they have become a part of and out they go, creating their own paths with new people. What we give, they give. It's amazing to see and feel the effects of what happens in our classroom.”

Borrowing from Jani’s poetic words, it is indeed amazing to see and feel the ripple effects of these women who received from their communities only to give back to them, paving new paths for us to walk on. Thank you for that.

What about your list? Who tops your list of amazing Puerto Rican women stateside we should recognize? Did we miss someone? Share your names. We may feature them in an upcoming issue.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 13 March 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.