Gilberto Gerena Valentín Remembered

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Among Puerto Rican political elites in New York City, Gilberto Gerena Valentín was one of a kind. He was driven, committed and charismatic. In the politics of the Puerto Rican community he was one of the most visible, enduring and influential protagonists. He was never afraid to rock the boat when he felt it was necessary, was never shy of llamar al pan, pan y al vino, vino, come what may. And yet, over time he was also capable of bridling his adversarial impetus and of generously respecting the point of view of even his most acerbic antagonists.

The role he played in the formation of two notable institutions—the Congress of Puerto Rican Hometowns (Congreso de Pueblos) and the Puerto Rican Parade—was both controversial and substantive. And even though he has been typecast as representing a specific type of leader, his life history and record of achievement is actually variegated and complex. For example, he was intensely preoccupied with homeland issues but also presided over an important, albeit ephemeral organization, the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights, that focused on issues affecting Puerto Ricans in New York.

Gerena, with his wife Francia Lubán, as Grand Marshall of the 1964 Puerto Rican Day Parade.

Gerena Valentín migrated to New York City in 1937, like most of his compatriots, driven by economic rather than political reasons. He left behind a Puerto Rican economy that was in shambles, hoping to make it in New York. Never mind that the opportunities the city offered were in the lowest rungs of the urban economy; low-level employment in New York was comparatively better than anything available in Puerto Rico. The community that he found in New York was growing rapidly but it was still relatively small. Upon arrival, he was mostly concerned with finding work and going to school, and before politics his primary interest was the labor movement.

From labor organizing Gerena Valentín went into the U.S. military to serve during the closing years of World War II. After the war, labor and politics became the two fundamental interests that marked everything he did in the city until his return to Puerto Rico in 1985. His interest in labor politics was stoked by an invitation to organize fellow workers in the Hotel industry and it was also facilitated by the larger context of generalized labor unrest in New York and the country, and the shift in the way labor unions were recognized and treated under federal legislation sponsored by the administrations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman.

His political activity was driven by concerns with workers' rights, social justice, and nationalism. In these efforts he did not allow himself to be red-baited and paid the price for it: when he refused to sign an affidavit certifying that he was not a member of the Communist Party, he was banned from the New York Hotel Trades Council for three years.

Addressing a union meeting (circa 1977).

Over time, Puerto Ricans in New York have navigated the socioeconomic and political waters of the city with difficulty. They have confronted both opportunities and obstacles of their own making and of the kind over which they have had no control. Being in the right place at the wrong time has been one element of their experience; the life of Gerena Valentín provides one example of that general feature.

Before his arrival in New York, labor organizing by Jewish and German immigrants along ethnic lines fortified the labor movement both economically and politically. But the elements that made this possible were not there when Gerena made similar attempts to bring ethnicity into his labor organizing projects: Puerto Ricans were not a demographically significant segment of the population in the 1940s; just as they began to concentrate in the strategically important garment industry, the industry began to decline; as the New York economy began to enter its post-industrial phase, Puerto Ricans remained concentrated in manufacturing jobs, with lower rates of participation and higher unemployment rates.

Further, the radical intellectual milieu that gave support and impetus to labor organizing among Jews and Germans, never found and equivalent in strength and spread among Puerto Ricans. To make matters more difficult, during the Post War period, when Gerena began the more extended part of his activism, the labor movement, generally and in New York, entered an institutionalization phase that made it less militant, more right-wing and more inward looking. It is important to highlight this inhospitable context because it makes us appreciate better the remarkably arduous efforts that Gerena Valentín and his contemporaries had to make in order to advance Puerto Rican economic, political and social interests. What they did was also done without much assistance from political parties.

Gerena Valentín saw the labor movement mostly as a vehicle for socioeconomic advancement. To him labor politics was driven by economic concerns, and political concerns were separate, focused on acculturation, cultural affirmation, democratic rights, and independence for Puerto Rico. It is no surprise, then, that his politics revolved around the Congress of Puerto Rican Hometowns, the Puerto Rican Day Parade, civil rights issues, the 1964 public schools boycott, and the New York Committee of the Puerto Rican Pro Independence Party, to name just a few of the outlets that channeled Gerena Valentín's political energy and aspirations.

Gerena Valentín's service in the U.S. military is interesting and puzzling. He seems to fit the category of participants who do so because they have no other choice, rather than out of a sense of patriotism or for the benefits that service provides to those who cheat death or disability. Under the terms of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, Gerena had the option to refuse to serve as a conscientious objector but instead he resorted to silly tactics to make himself unfit for service. When these tactics failed, he decided to join under the absurd rationale that risking death was preferable to prison.

Gerena Valentín participated in air missions, was forced to parachute in enemy territory and nearly lost his life. He also belongs to another category of American soldiers: those who joined reluctantly only to become convinced that the real enemy was within rather than without. This does not mean that he developed sympathies for the Axis, but that he was not persuaded that the United States was a paragon of virtue, even during this generally regarded Good War. He empathized with nationalists from the Philippines and Japan, processing his personal interactions through the filter of anti-colonialism, seeing in their Post War relationship to the United States, parallels to the subordination of Puerto Rico to the U.S. Above all, the experience of war and its horrors, especially the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which he saw as cruelly unnecessary, had a profound impact on him. In his own words:  "I returned more rebellious than I had been before, and I was filled with a strong anti-war, anti-racist, anti-imperialist conscience."[1] This set of attitudes remained with him through the end of his days.

Copy of Gerena's pass from the Sioux Fall Army Air Field (1943).

In 1946, Gerena Valentín took off his military uniform and went back to his old job at the Hotel Commodore. From thereon, his life was propelled by the twin engines of trade unionism and nationalism. He embodied the linkages between Puerto Rican politics and the civil rights movement. He worked with anyone and everyone that represented and/or advocated for social justice, inclusiveness and fair representation in the political society, always concerned first and foremost with Puerto Rican issues and concerns. He operated as an outsider in rhetoric and style while remaining within the parameters of mainstream politics in terms of methods, substance and goals. Marching, demonstrating, and participating in boycotts never deterred him from accepting governmental appointments or running for office and serving as an elected official. For him, politics was about solidarity, but solidarity always had to have something in it for Puerto Ricans. The Popular Front Model was acceptable for trade union and nationalist politics, but travels with the Communist Party USA stopped at the systemic transformation shore.

At face value, Gerena Valentín's style and political trajectory seems to point toward the idea of "going against the grain." In fact, he was as much of an establishment figure as Herman Badillo or Toni Pantoja, and to some extent he combined elements from both of them. Interestingly, this is part of what makes him one of a kind among his peers. As a New York City councilman he introduced resolutions against the presence of the U.S. Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico; against the movie Fort Apache, The Bronx, and against the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. He saw the council more as a bully pulpit than as a policymaking tool, and in office he acted more as an ideologue than a policymaker. By his own admission, political office was just a platform to advocate for specific issues. Nevertheless, his actions almost always had a constituency, and he was recognized as someone who could put “boots on the ground” when necessary. Ironically, when he lost his city council seat in 1982, columnist Luisa Quintero noted that his problem was that he was not Machiavellian enough, even though he was as much a calculating politician as anybody else. He was a true mover and shaker, a political advocate of remarkable commitment and stamina.

Flyer for the campaign for city councilman at large for Manhattan (1969).

In his article about leadership in urban politics, political scientist Clarence Stone wrote: "An open and personal style of leadership by itself is little assurance that policy impact, citizen involvement, or institution building will be substantial."[2] Policy impact, citizen involvement and institution building are a good set of criteria to judge the quality of political leaders. In a Centro Journal article published in 2003 I wrote: "By the criterion of institutional development, Puerto Rican leadership has been nothing short of phenomenal," and I considered that to be true beyond the New York City landscape.[3] In that arena of Puerto Rican politics, Gilberto Gerena Valentín left an indelible mark. For that and much more, he should be remembered as an honest broker and champion of Puerto Rican interests.

[1] Gilberto Gerena Valentín, Gilberto Gerena Valentín: My Life as a Community Activist, Labor Organizer, and Progressive Politician in New York City, Carlos Rodríguez-Fraticelli, ed. (New York: Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2013), p. 81.

[2] Clarence N. Stone, "Political Leadership in Urban Politics," in David Judge, Gerry Stoker and Harold Wolman, eds., Theories of Urban Politics (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1995), p. 114.

[3] José E. Cruz, "Unfulfilled Promise: Puerto Rican Politics and Poverty," CENTRO Journal  15:I (Spring 2003), p. 165.

Hero image: On the soapbox, in front of New York City's Board of Education headquarters (110 Livingston Street, Brooklyn), during the 1964 school boicut.
© José E. Cruz. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 26 February 2016.

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.