Gretchen Sierra-Zorita

Desde la Diáspora

Por Gretchen Sierra-Zorita
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The Collaboratory of the Puerto Rican Diaspora

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies-Centro at Hunter College <> , part of the City University of New York (CUNY), celebrates its 45th anniversary this year. Centro is the only academic institution dedicated exclusively to multidisciplinary research on the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. Centro also houses the most comprehensive library and archive of the Puerto Rican diaspora. 

Centro’s contributions to the understanding and appreciation of our history and culture are evident. What is not so obvious is the indispensable role that Centro has played in educating and mobilizing Puerto Rican communities across the United States, as well as the influence it can have on the future of Puerto Rico and our communities on the mainland. 

In 2015, when it became obvious that the island’s government would not be able to pay the debt, around 350 people convened at the Encuentro Nacional de la Diáspora Puertorriqueña in Orlando, Florida. Representatives of Puerto Rican communities from eight states and Washington D.C., from across the political spectrum, gathered for the first time to discuss the fiscal crisis and develop a common agenda. 

During the assembly, Centro’s Director Dr. Edwin Meléndez gave a presentation on Puerto Rican migration within the context of the economic crisis. Upon listening to his presentation, richly sourced in data, I realized that whatever the diaspora did would benefit from the support and analytical capacity of Centro. 

In 2016, in response to the worsening crisis and the need to take immediate action, Centro decided to open its doors to the Puerto Rican diaspora. 

That same year, Centro organized the first Diaspora Summit in New York City with the goal of discussing the economic and fiscal crisis, its impact on Puerto Rican communities on the mainland, and the development of a shared action plan to combat it. 

Two more national summits followed—one in 2017 that centered on the PROMESA law and another in 2018 that focused on the impact of Hurricane María. Centro, moreover, has organized eight regional conferences using the same model, including two with the University of Puerto Rico in support of reconstruction efforts led by the civic sector. I have had the great fortune of participating in many of these events as both moderator and panelist.  

The Centro conferences are impactful for several reasons. First, Centro has the power to convene a high-quality, diverse, and large pool of Puerto Rican talent. Second, Centro promotes a respectful environment where Puerto Ricans with distinct backgrounds and opinions are able to start dialogue and create community.   Third, Centro offers a collaborative space that promotes the development of partnerships and solutions. Many of the members of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, to which I also belong, have met through Centro events.And last, Centro is the only organization that has dedicated resources to thoroughly educate the diaspora on topics that affect their communities and Puerto Rico, from an academic, non-partisan, non-ideological standpoint. It is this last point that has garnered Centro the trust and respect of the communities it studies. 

All of these conferences have been well received by the diaspora and the interest in learning more about the issues is palpable. 

Part of the success of these conferences is owed to Centro’s insistence on creating a neutral space where individuals with distinct political affiliations can identify common objectives. Although the colonial status of Puerto Rico finds its way into all presentations, the status options are not the main topic of discussion. 

Unfortunately, Centro was penalized last year for taking a neutral stance with regard to the participation of Óscar López Rivera at the National Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City. The dissatisfaction of certain sectors of the Puerto Rican community led to a budget cut of $470,000 in funding provided by the City of New York. The funds were eventually restored, but the incident demonstrates Centro’s vulnerability.

All Puerto Ricans are conscious of the high cost of politicizing the institutions that serve our communities. It would be a tragedy if the success that Centro has had in educating, uniting, and mobilizing Puerto Rican communities, at a critical moment, was to be ruined by lack of financial and institutional support. 

Centro is a vital part of CUNY and New York City, and as such, it has received the support of both entities. Beyond that, Centro has gone from a local institution to one of national character, respected by the communities it studies and serves, recognized as a first-class research center.

Centro opened its doors in 1973, when the Puerto Rican diaspora was starting to demonstrate its political power in New York City, with the creation of institutions like Hostos Community College and Boricua College, also of CUNY, and organizations like the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund—today known as Latino Justice PRLDEF. Back then, 1.4 million Puerto Ricans were living in the United States. Today, we are 5.6 million and the value of what has been achieved by Centro and similar institutions is immeasurable. 

In these times of crisis, it is urgent for us to secure the profound and important legacy of organizations like Centro; to act in unison and in a constructive manner. Together, we can tackle the challenges facing our communities and Puerto Rico. Divided, we’re lost. 

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