A True Hero of the Puerto Rican Diaspora: Celebrating Gilberto Gerena Valentín

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“Gilberto Gerena Valentin was a trailblazer and relentless fighter for the civil rights of Puerto Ricans, an unwavering defender of all workers, and he forged bridges between African Americans and Boricuas around our common struggles. As a former Council member, he raised his voice on so many issues, including the way district lines were drawn to disempower communities.  Gerena Valentin was our tireless campeón not only because he challenged the status quo but also because he firmly believed in the power and potential of our people. He remains an example to every activist and leader working for justice.” 

This statement from Speaker and New York City council member Melissa Mark-Viverito is one of many that were shared with Centro Voices in the days following the death of Gerena Valentín.

Last Friday, February 19th, 2016, the Puerto Rican community lost one of its most respected and accomplished members. Gilberto Gerena Valentín was 98 years old, living back in his hometown of Lares, when he passed. His return to this small, historic mountain town came after decades of work for Puerto Ricans both on and off the island, with his longevity extending this legacy over the course of generations.

The son of a laborer and occasional businessman, Gerena Valentín was born in Lares on January 25th, 1918. His father would pass away when he was 9 and his mother a year later. Fueled by a need to provide for himself, he sped through grammar school, high school before moving stateside in search of better economic opportunities.

In this short video Gerena Valentín elaborates on his early motivations.

Not one afraid to work hard for himself and others, his first job upon arriving to New York City in 1937 was dishwasher at a Greek restaurant and later as an elevator operator. It was perhaps through these jobs that he saw the need for mobilizing his people. He became a union organizer in 1947 when he returned to New York City after serving in the U.S. Army during WWII and worked closely with legendary congressman Vito Marcantonio and the American Labor Party.

Gerena Valentín recalls his early experiences in New York City.

Gerena Valentín played an active part in the founding and development of all the major Puerto Rican organizations in the postwar period, including the Congreso de Pueblos, the Puerto Rican Day Parade, the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights, the Puerto Rican Folklore Festival and the Puerto Rican Community Development Project. During this period he was also a member of the New York City Human Rights Commission, appointed by Mayor John Lindsay.

In this short interview Gerena Valentín describes the beginnings of the Congreso de Pueblos anf the Parade.

As Virginia Sánchez-Korrol, historian and professor emerita in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, CUNY, remembers,

“At a time when our community most needed representation, Gilberto Gerena Valentin spoke the language of the barrio, and challenged the institutional racism and exploitation of the New York Puerto Rican community in a strong, articulate voice. To many, he was a multi-faceted hero garbed in the cloaks of civil rights activist, politician, labor leader and cultural advocate. He saw strength in unity, and his legacy lives on in the institutions he created.”

In the early 1960s, Gerena Valentín, already widely recognized as an important labor organizer and Puerto Rican Civil Rights leader, became a pioneer in the creation of coalitions with the principal African American civil rights organizations first in New York City and later nationally. His work led him to forge deep political and personal relationships New York’s black civil rights leadership, especially with Brooklyn’s civil rights leader, the Rev. Milton Galmison, and with labor organizer Ewart Guinier. They would be the ones to introduce Gerena Valentín to Rev. Martin Luther King.

Gerena Valentín remembers what it was like to participate in the historic march on Washington in his memoir:

“On August 28, over 250,000 men and women from all parts of the United States went to Washington, D.C., among them more than 30,000 Puerto Ricans.It was an extremely emotional moment for me when the organizers of the event told me that I would be one of the speakers at the March, and that I would be speaking as a representative of the Puerto Rican community in the United States. I addressed the public in Spanish. When I stood at the lectern that had been set up in front of the Lincoln Memorial and faced the thousands and thousands of faces looking up at me as the representative of my community, I became very nervous. But I immediately recovered my composure and, having memorized my speech, I spoke for fifteen minutes. Although I know that most of the people there didn’t have any idea what I was talking about, they very respectfully and affectionately applauded me when I was done. It was on that same stage that the Reverend King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.”

This is perhaps one of his most significant achievements. Though it certainly shouldn’t overshadow the humbler, less publicized acts of service that characterized his work within the Puerto Rican community.

Cesar A. Perales, co-founder of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and current Secretary of State of New York, specifically recalls one moment that stood out to him,

“I will never forget how Gerena, even while serving on the City Council, agreed to serve as our plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the discriminatory way the Council was gerrymandered. Here was a man who never hesitated to put his self interest behind the interest of our community.”

There are hundreds, if not thousands of stories like this. And besides his central role in mobilizing Puerto Ricans for the famous marches on Washington in 1963 and 1968, he was also  responsible for organizing the New York City school boycott of 1964, the largest in the nation’s history.

From there, Gerena Valentín became not only an activist and organizer, he became an inspiring figure to future generations, to each of the names above that shared a few words on his behalf. New York State Assemblyman José Rivera is just one example:

“In 1969, I had first heard about his activism in El Nuevo Dia. Later, I went to a meeting he was participating in. I was impressed. He was like the way of Malcolm X, fighting to unite the people together for representation within the system. Gerena truly impressed me and I consider him my mentor. We should all give him credit for his activism. Gerena made a lot of the current activism (like in facebook) possible. To achieve his ultimate dream, for the freedom of Puerto Rico.”

Gerena would also serve as an elected official, representing the Bronx as a councilman from 1977 to 1981. In 1985, Gerena Valentín left New York City and returned to Lares, Puerto Rico. Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF, summarizes his work as such:

"Gilberto Gerena Valentín epitomizes the best elements of Puerto Rican activism in New York City where he lived for 50 years. From stewarding small Puerto Rican social clubs to leading legislation in the City Council, from hunger strikes and arrests to testifying in favor of independence before the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization, from organizing with Dr. Martin Luther King to using the federal courts to protect equal rights, Mr. Gerena Valentín used multiple avenues to obtain respect for Puerto Ricans both here and in Puerto Rico."

It was back in his hometown that Gerena Valentín authored his memoirs, Soy Gilberto Gerena Valentin: memorias de un puertorriqueño en Nueva York (English edition: Gilberto Gerena Valentin: My Life as a Community Activist, Labor Organizer an Progressive Politician in New York City).

At the time of his passing, Gerena Valentín was in the care of Milagros López Camacho and her husband Eliezer López Gerena. He is survived by three daughters: Marisabel (ita) from California, Marielia from Maryland and Gilmari from Spain, and a stepdaughter Taita Rodríguez. His son Joey passed away in 2012.

Gerena Valentín will always be remembered for his staunch defense of his community, his loyalty to those struggling for inclusion and recognition, for his humanity. Of course, words can only fall short in expressing this sentiment. However, Gerson Borrero, columnist and political commentator, perhaps says it best:

"The typical response or statement when a warrior dies is to be selective in the words that one choses to reflect what this person was or the contribution that he or she made. In the case of Gerena Valentín I can safely say that resting in peace is not something that his legacy will be.”

Madeline Friedman, Charlie “Isa” Guzman and Gabriela Sierra Alonso contributed to researching this story.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published 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.