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Behold the Dawn of a Golden Age in Puerto Rican Studies

by Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera & Aura S. Jirau


Last week, hundreds of Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricanist scholars, artists and activists, convened in Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey to participate in the 13th Biennial convention of the Puerto Rican Studies Association. This convention has become part of their academic and cultural pilgrimage for some. For others, this was their first time attending or presenting. For all, if we may be so bold, it was an illuminating and inspiring experience. We enjoyed three days of innovative and dynamic exchanges and dialogues that we hope will lead to the democratization of the production of knowledge about Puerto Rico and its diaspora in all their manifestations. The atmosphere was one of open and honest collegiality and camaraderie. #PRStudies2018 provided a cozy, familiar, even intimate yet vibrant and challenging space for the exchange of ideas. There was something in the air.

Scholars, film-makers, poets, and activists gathered in a cross-generational spectrum like we had not seen before. We witnessed a young generation, a new crop of scholars and activists, many of whom are still in graduate school, engaging like seasoned scholars. They mixed and dialogued with their senior peers ranging from those who are starting their careers to emerging scholars and pillars of Puerto Rican Studies such as Virginia Sánchez Korrol. This longitudinal depth is a great omen for the future of Puerto Rican studies and our association.

The PRSA leadership foresaw this phenomenon and provided the spaces for mentoring graduate students. It was only fitting that the formal activity in the Conference’s Program was a Mentoring Workshop for up and coming scholars of Puerto Rican Studies. Organized by Student Members Sarah Molinari and Lisa Figueroa-Jahn, this workshop gathered a set of young scholars from multiple disciplines whishing to network and grow both intellectually and professionally. The participants learned from seasoned scholars like Virginia Sánchez-Koroll and Jason Cortés, and young professors Alessandra Rosa and Jorell Meléndez Badillo, who have recent experience in the academic job market. This could not have happened at a better time, for Puerto Rico and the Puerto Ricans from all generations need to be more in control of the telling of our stories and histories.

While Puerto Rico’s many crises and the aftermath of Hurricane María provided impetus for our meeting, we were pleased to see the diversity of the works presented. Retired professors and public scholars reflected on the legacies of the Puerto Rican independence movement in the mainland, while our dedicated and energetic colleague Marisol Lebrón chaired an “amazing panel on solidarity and autogestion where fierce queer Puerto Rican women [including Adriana Garriga María López] offered their reflections on the difficult questions of crisis and transformation in the archipelago” José Caraballo Cueto’s Keynote demystifying normalized thoughts about the archipelago’s economic woes also offered hope for the future and exemplified the varied character of contemporary Puerto Rican Studies.

The variety of works within Puerto Rican Studies also showed in the traditional Awards Ceremony, where Licia Fiol Matta’s The Great Woman Singer: Gender and Violence in Puerto Rican Music won the Frank Bonilla Best Book Award and Cristina Pérez Jiménez’s “Here to Stay”: New York Puerto Ricans and the Consolidation of Latino New York, 1931-1951 won the Best Dissertation Award, now name after our esteemed colleague Virginia Sánchez Korrol. Her gracious acceptance speech and Facebook post shows the deep respect and solidarity that exists among our scholars and the depth of our scholarship.

“I’m honored to have been awarded the biennial 2018 Virginia Sanchez Korrol-Puerto Rican Studies Association Dissertation Prize. This award is all the more special because this is the first year it is named after Virginia Sánchez-Korrol, a trailblazing scholar who has paved the way for so much of Puerto Rican Studies today, and to whose scholarship I owe so much. I also want to congratulate Licia Fiol Matta, whose book The Great Women Singer was awarded the 2018 PRSA [Frank Bonilla] Book Prize, and is such a significant contribution to the field, and Jorell Meléndez-Badillo whose dissertation [The Lettered Barriada: Puerto Rican Workers’ Intellectual Community, 1898-1933] was awarded an Honorable Mention. Thank you PRSA!”

The depth of our academic and cultural production was also evidenced by the book talks and exhibit. Here is a sample: Virginia Sánches Korrol, The Season of Rebel Roses; Jilian Baez, In Search of Belonging: Latinas, Media, and Citizenship; Antonio Sotomayor, The Sovereign Colony; and cultural ambassador per excellence, Raquel Ortiz and her amazing award winning series of Sofi. If you get the feeling that as we wrote this piece we felt like announcing the Oscars (con énfasis en la a) you are getting it right. And this is just a tiny sample for there are too many to include---and that is a wonderful thing.

Equally relevant, our conference had significant participation from our archipelago-based colleagues. And again, that included graduate students and established scholars such as Silvia Álvarez Curbelo and Manuel Rodríguez. This archipelago-U.S. Mainland connection was also visible in the fantastic film series organized by Jason Ortiz, which among its many jewels included the memorable must-see documentary, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, directed by Gabriel Miranda. The very solid activism and activist work presented during the conference including, but not limited to a discussion of the infamous Gag Law with Oscar López Rivera, also served as an example of stronger ties with the Archipelago.

We would be remis if we did not mention that the conference’s steering committee (Marisol Lebrón, Sarah Molinari, Aldo Lauria Santiago, Charles Venator Santiago, and Alessandra Rosa and Salvador Mercado) which worked tirelessly to make this event a success. Organizing a conference is never an easy task. But this time around, the PRSA leadership had an even harder task, as they worked in rebuilding the association which two years ago had seen its resources and membership dwindle; and our area studies and the survival of the association in peril. Two years later, the association is larger, more diverse, and more transparent and solid than ever before. PRSA has come out of its ordeal stronger than ever.

Furthermore and equally important to our intellectual exchanges, PRSA’s Business Meeting had a healthy attendance. We engaged in lively discussion about the future of our Association, as well as the Association’s new leadership, which now includes Political Science Professor Charles Venator-Santiago as vice-president and president elect. Our hopes, in line with that of the current and future Executive Committee, are that our Association will continue growing its membership and become financially stable and independent.

PRSA has experienced a renacimiento, and it is no exaggeration to say we are in the dawn of a Golden Age when it comes to our academic, artistic and academic production and collaboration across fields, areas and spaces.

PRSA’s 2018 Biennial Meeting established and cultivated networks which serve not just to situate our scholars within an academic community but to end our invisibility, support each other, strengthen our research, publications and engagement while building more bridges for our communities.

Those bridges go beyond the traditional means and now include PRSA’s healthy online presence on Facebook and Twitter. A quick online search will show that the #PRStudies2018 was followed by our colleagues, friends and allies in the Great Puerto Rican Archipelago and by that we mean those in the Caribbean and our communities in the U.S. mainland and anywhere a Puerto Rican community exist.

Finally, thank you to all the attendees and presenters. You made this happen. Every single one of you. And you should feel proud of it.

Dr. Harry Franqui-Rivera is an Associate Professor of History at Bloomfield College, New Jersey. He is also the Executive Director of the New York Chapter of the National Puerto Rican Agenda, and author of Soldiers of the Nation: Military Service and Modern Puerto Rico, 1868-1952 (Studies in War, Society, and the Military Series) Nebraska University Press. 

Aura S. Jirau is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Pittsburgh. She holds an MA in history from the same institution and a BA in History of the Americas from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. Her work’s main mission is to use the 20th century and the Cold War to frame Puerto Rico in transnational and global contexts. Her doctoral dissertation traces the mid-20th-century student movement of her undergraduate alma mater, and its relationships with both the island’s political struggles and its broader socioeconomic transformations.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices 02 November 2018.