Louis Núñez: In Memoriam

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By Centro Staff

When Louis Núñez passed away last week of leukemia, The New York Times rightly called him “a champion of educational and economic opportunity for Puerto Ricans for more than three decades.” Indeed, he deeply impacted the Puerto Rican and Latino communities in this country. However, too few may know his name or the important achievements he left behind.

A native New Yorker of Puerto Rican and Peruvian heritage, Núñez graduated from City College of New York in 1953. He went on to do graduate work in education and public and business administration at both City University of New York and New York University.

After serving in the Army in Korea and receiving a National Defense Service Medal and a Good Conduct Medal, Núñez went on to work for the nonprofit organization Aspira. He was recruited by Aspira’s founder, Antonia Pantoja

Núñez later wrote, “The invitation to work at Aspira came at the right moment . . . . [It] offered me the chance to combine my interest and concerns about the future of the community into a professional, life-changing opportunity.”

Núñez eventually became national executive director of Aspira. During his time there, the organization grew in size and reputation, becoming a leading organization in the empowerment of the Puerto Rican and Latino community nationally.

Later, Núñez served as deputy staff director of the U.S. Civils Rights Commission, the nation’s preeminent civil rights agency. In 1979, he was nominated by then-President Jimmy Carter and confirmed by the Senate as staff director. In this capacity, he supervised a staff of more than 200 and directed the Commission’s many studies and reports, which provided the factual and legal basis for much of the federal government’s civil rights initiative during that period.

And then, from 1977 to 1994, he was president and chief executive officer of the National Puerto Rican Coalition (NPRC), the leading national public advocacy organization representing the interests and concerns of Puerto Ricans.

After retiring from the NPRC, Núñez continued to work, providing consultant services in development, public policy, and civil rights. During his life, he also served on numerous boards and commissions, among them the Bureau of the Census Hispanic Advisory Committee for the 2000 Census; the Board of Directors of the Independent Sector; the Center for Community Change; the Puerto Rican Community Foundation; the Hispanic Association for Corporate Responsibility; the Hispanic Leadership Agenda; the New York City Board of Higher Education.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate in Human Letters in 1992 from the City University of New York.

Last year, for all his accomplishments, Núñez was included in Centro’s 100 Puerto Ricans Campaign. The campaign is designed to celebrate the contributions of individuals and organizations that are making a difference in our community. Accepting the award, Núñez said, “It’s been a long life, and my life in a way parallels the development of the Puerto Rican community in the United States . . . . I grew up in New York [in] the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s . . . I lived all of that.”

 He donated his papers to the Archives at Centro and was interviewed as part of the Archives’ oral history collection.

Director of Centro Edwin Meléndez expressed his condolences over the loss of Núñez earlier this week and said that “the Puerto Rican community and Centro have lost a dear friend and an important voice.”   

Núñez’s life reminds us that humble beginnings need not be limiting and that working for one’s community is a fulfilling and courageous path to take. A look back at his legacy as a champion for his people should be an inspiration to all of us.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 8 May 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.