THE STORY OF U.S. PUERTO RICANS - PART SIX
Virginia Sanchez Korrol
Resistance and Empowerment:
The Puerto Rican community gradually forged inroads into dominant American culture in the decades following the massive migration of the 50s and 60s but not without resistance and struggle. The perseverance and mobilization of continental communities brought about some social changes that marked important contributions to diaspora and non-Hispanic societies in several major arenas. These included, but were not limited to, public school and higher education and radical and community politicization.
The importance of educating U.S. Puerto Rican youth was one that permeated the New York barrios since the time of the pioneer generation. Knowledge of one’s language, history and cultural heritage was frequently included in the mission statements and programmatic agendas of inter-war community associations. Public manifestations oriented around cultural themes, such as the religious Three Kings Day or commemoration of historical events, formed an important focus of an association’s annual activities and were intended to reinforce culture and heritage. Some cultural groups or fraternal associations provided after school programs for neighborhood youth devoted to Spanish language instruction and cultural maintenance. Over the ensuing decades, indications of parental concerns for the education of their children surfaced in numerous fashions. That concern is illustrated by two events separated by some 30 years. The first took place in the mid-1930s when the Puerto Rican community denounced reports issued by the Special Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the New York Chamber of Commerce, which stigmatized 240 Puerto Rican children as intellectually deficient. The second, in the 1960s, encompassed movements for political self-definition and determination manifested largely in efforts to establish bilingual, bicultural education in public schools.
The natural expansion of Puerto Rican barrios, augmented by an increased migration following the Second World War, meant sharp increases in the numbers of children enrolled in the public schools. From the decades of the 50s to the 70s, depending on the geographic location of Puerto Rican and Latino communities, these students would overwhelm public instructional resources. Faced with a migrant population about whom little was known, teachers had not experienced such a massive infusion of non-English speakers in New York since the turn-of-the-century European immigrations. To further complicate the issue, while the Puerto Rican situation bore marked similarities with past immigrant experiences, this multiracial, Spanish dominant group was comprised nonetheless of American citizens. Furthermore, the education of U.S. Puerto Rican youth carried socio-political implications given the legal relationship between the island and the United States. As American citizens, Puerto Ricans had the option to move within national borders without forfeiting their rights to an education. There was little guidance that could be given teachers and school administrators in the instruction and accommodation of this population except for resuscitating total immersion and other old methods for teaching non-English speakers. Under these rubrics, limited speakers of the English language in elementary grades were placed one or two years behind their age-appropriate grades or in classes for slow learners. Parents abhorred such practices, believing such actions motivated students to drop out of school. Some schools paired the non-English speaker with a proficient buddy or relegated the student to remedial classes, equating limitations in English proficiency with developmental learning problems. At the secondary level, the few that remained in school were frequently concentrated in nonacademic, vocational or general tracks. Across the board, teacher expectations of Puerto Rican scholastic achievement were generally low.
Puerto Ricans frequently demonstrated concerns for sound, equitable educational experiences for their young. In 1949 the Committee of the Association of Assistant Superintendents conducted a study that confirmed the need for at least a year’s preparation in the English language before these children were ready for primary content instruction. The Elementary Division of the Board of Education responded by appointing ten Puerto Rican teachers, dubbed Substitute Auxiliary Teachers, to schools with high concentrations of Spanish-speaking youngsters. Their task was to assist in the orientation of these children and to serve as intermediaries between the schools and the community. Moreover, in less than five years, the Board commissioned a landmark study on Puerto Rican students intended to provide teachers and administrators with a thorough understanding of the group’s heritage and U.S. background. Based on these findings, measures for their instruction were recommended. The Puerto Rican Study, 1953–1957, supported the hiring of Substitute Auxiliary Teachers, calling for more Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican coordinators, school-community coordinators, teachers of English as a Second Language, counselors and administrators.
The first teachers to fill these positions represented the precursors of bilingual education as practiced in the New York City schools. Their experiences served as models for communities in surrounding states. These individuals connected the schools and the community by cultivating rapport, reciprocity and a bilingual communication network. They became cultural resources throughout the system, offering their expertise in sensitivity training and implementing programs that enhanced cultural awareness and self-respect. The new discourse generated the need for fresh, innovative curriculum content, multi-level materials and other sources of enrichment. A disciplined and committed group, they established ongoing study units for their professional advancement, participated in retreats and other intellectual forums and produced instructional materials. The Society of Puerto Rican Auxiliary Teachers, SPRAT, the Puerto Rican Educators Association, PREA, and the Hispanic chapter of the United Federation of Teachers provided the spaces wherein the struggles for bilingual teacher accreditation were launched. Finally licensed in 1967, bilingual teachers and other Spanish-speaking professionals in the city’s instructional corps continued to provide active leadership directed towards improving conditions in Puerto Rican barrios.
Although the contributions of the bilingual professionals in public instruction are fairly visible, their work in community affairs is often overlooked, not properly assessed as a significant community building component. On the neighborhood front, these professionals generated a fervent and committed following. Parental loyalty manifested itself in multifaceted participation at school board meetings, political rallies, conferences and lectures. The militant struggles over community control of New York public schools and decentralization of the Board of Education stand as significant models.
Rejecting a proposed integration model during the late 60s and early 70s, based on transporting children from minority neighborhood schools to predominantly white sites in the city, Puerto Rican parents argued instead for improving the quality of education throughout the system. The right of Puerto Rican parents and students to determine the best educational experience for their children became a bitterly contested issue, but bussing children to potentially explosive settings was a decision they would not support. In 1968, three decentralized school districts were created in an effort to include minority participation. These, in turn, created separate community elected governing boards empowered to hire and fire teachers and administrators, and to determine curriculum. Through fierce political mobilization and voter registration drives, minority parents ultimately won election to the school boards. In District 1, in Manhattan’s predominantly Hispanic Lower East Side, the newly elected board succeeded in hiring Spanish-speaking teachers, a Puerto Rican supervisor, and bringing bilingual education to the schools. Initially supported by the powerful United Federation of Teachers led by Albert Shanker, the union saw fit to withdraw its support when teachers hostile to the new order were fired. A series of strikes ensued that eroded the gains made by the minority community, and the newly constituted boards fell under control of the old guard in the following election.
Nevertheless, this short-lived victory served as a beacon for self-determination and solidarity, encouraging bilingual teachers to continue their work with a cadre of community activists, many of whom became leaders in their own right. They organized parents in Parent-Teacher Associations, encouraged their learning English, and offered adult language classes for that purpose. In coalition with other barrio groups, the teachers promoted advocacy for community empowerment and cultural affirmation, and access to educational institutions and policy making.
Bilingual education became a unifying cry in Puerto Rican and Latino barrios throughout the nation. The early 70s witnessed community mobilization in numbers of cities with large Puerto Rican concentrations. Interestingly, while many non-Puerto Rican Latinos generally supported the issue, class action suits demanding redress for language minority students were brought before the courts by American citizens. For the most part, this meant intensive community mobilization, mustered by Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and Cuban Americans. The right of school districts to mount bilingual education programs became Federal Law in 1968, but local systems were frequently resistant to that instructional method.
The landmark case for educational equity took place in New York City in 1972. It centered on a suit against the largest Board of Education in the nation by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund on behalf of 15 school children, their parents, ASPIRA of New York, Inc. and ASPIRA of America, Inc. Evidence that over 80,000 language minority children were denied equal educational opportunity resulted in the ASPIRA Consent Decree 1974, mandating bilingual education for all who needed it. A similar class action suit in Hartford, Connecticut, ensured bilingual education for the Puerto Rican and Latino children in that city. In time bilingual, bicultural programs emerged throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and other regions with large Hispanic populations, but it was seldom accomplished without contesting.
The failure of American institutions to educate Puerto Rican youth at all levels of the educational spectrum was the focal point of numerous studies, congresses and programs of which the Hemos Trabajado Bien, an ASPIRA conference of 1968, serves as a good example. National trends toward ethno-racial diversity in the late 60s and early 70s, the civil rights movement and the struggles over community control, decentralization and desegregation set the ideological tenor for this summit. Puerto Ricans met with Mexican Americans and non-Latino pedagogues to assess the educational needs and future prospects of urban youth. In response to alarming statistics and effective exclusion at the university levels, participants pledged to intensify the struggle for bilingual, bicultural education. They laid claims to Constitutional rights for all Puerto Ricans and Latinos to equitable participation in U.S. political and educational spheres, and other sectors from which they had been traditionally excluded.
In terms of academia, transformation of its very nature was essential to correct the omissions and stereotypical distortions to which the group had been subjected in the research and popular literature. The earliest scholarly study of the group, Chenault’s The Puerto Rican Migrant, painted a negative picture, depicting the group as unambitious, unreliable individuals of pathologically sensitive dispositions. The literature of the late 40s and 50s designated the migration experience as the Puerto Rican “problem”. Daily Mirror columnists, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer described them as “mostly crude farmers, . . (who) turn to guile and wile and the steel blade, the traditional weapon of the sugarcane cutter, mark of their blood and heritage.” In 1948 they opined:
During the last ten years and growing every year, there has descended upon Manhattan Island like a locust plague an influx of Puerto Ricans... They are mostly crude farmers, subject to congenital tropical disease, physically unfitted for the northern climate, unskilled, uneducated, non-English speaking and almost impossible to assimilate in an active city of stone and steel.
Another journalistic endeavor portrayed Puerto Ricans as the cause for lowered educational standards, “because of the language problem, and when Puerto Rican children are in a majority on a street they can, like any such majority, make life almost unbearable for other children.”
The most negative and controversial interpretation of the Puerto Rican experience was perhaps Oscar Lewis’s La Vida. The publication, touted as an anthropological study, over-generalized both the island and diasporic realities, based on the experiences of one poor extended family engaged in prostitution as a way of life. Despite claims of academic objectivity, Lewis researched a limited sample and used a San Juan slum district known as the city’s unofficial red light district as a representative site. One researcher of New York Puerto Ricans was prompted to write: “An account of a prostitute’s family may produce a sensational best seller, but our studies of Puerto Ricans—employed, on relief, from the highland jivaro background or from other strata—indicate it is not at all representative.”
The creation of the ethnic studies, reflected in the Northeast with the emergence of Puerto Rican studies departments and programs throughout the city and state university systems in New York and New Jersey, were the intellectual bulwarks that penetrated academia, and therefore the vehicles for academic redress. The foundations of Puerto Rican Studies as a legitimate field of inquiry challenged absorption into an ethnocentric common canon that historically rendered linguistic, racial and national communities invisible. The new field affirmed ethno-cultural survival, supportive as it was, of a nation whose true cultural nucleus incorporates diversity, differentiation and multiethnic interaction. The philosophical framework of the field encouraged linkages between learning and practical applicability in seeking solutions to community problems. Furthermore, Puerto Rican Studies pledged accountability to community. Practitioners trained in discrete disciplines sought new ways of learning, methods of research, categories of analysis and in the process created intellectual discourses that corrected blatant misrepresentations found in the existing knowledge base. As research expanded to include previously neglected peoples and areas of inquiry, alternative paradigms altered conventional notions about Puerto Ricans and other U.S. ethno-racial groups.
In essence, the conceptual framework of a national melting pot was quickly boiling over as new information flooded into American awareness. The battles for access, excellence and open admissions to heretofore sacred halls of learning were not fought in isolation, but were rather imbedded in successive waves of resistance and affirmation historically evident in diaspora communities. These achievements were illustrative of the civil rights gains made by disenfranchised communities across the nation.
The promotion of community interests and group affirmation emerged through various venues. If one was surely the beneficent work of bilingual professionals, and another surfaced as clamor for inclusion, access to higher education and institutional reform, yet another aspect would be inserted in the discourse of radical politics. All shared common objectives—community empowerment, self-definition, determination and affirmation.
Guide to the Antonia Pantoja papers. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Guide to the Records of United Bronx Parents, Inc. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Guide to the Records of Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Guide to the Luis O. Reyes papers. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Guide to the Diana Caballero papers. Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.
Latinas in History
La Escuela Electronica
Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos, Hunter College, CUNY.