The National Puerto Rican Student Encuentro was an iniagural four-day conference that took place in New York City during the first week of June.
“The Encuentro was a huge success thanks to Centro staff and the students who helped with the organizing,” said Centro Director Edwin Melendez. “This is the kind of collaboration that will help build for a very bright future. These students now have the skills to uplift their communities and create meaningful change in the diaspora and in Puerto Rico.”
“When you fight for something, you love it even more,” said Rosa Cruz-Cordero, manager of outreach and partnerships at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. In a room full of Puerto Rican student leaders from around the United States and Puerto Rico, she urged this next generation to carry on the struggle, beginning with each of their college campuses.
The students had just received their certificates from Centro’s Cultural Ambassadors Program, which had been a prerequisite of the inaugural National Youth Leadership Encuentro, a collaboration between the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Mentes Puertorriqueñas en Acción, and the National Puerto Rican Student Alliance.
"The Encuentro was a historic gathering of the Puento Rican youth leadership from across the nation. It was a unique opportunity for these young leaders to connect with other leaders, learn about the issues of Puerto Ricans and develop plans of action," said Jose Rivera, National Puerto Rican Student Coalition Executive Director.
“We are very energized and excited by this new group of young leaders who are joining us in helping to educate and celebrate our community,” added Raquel Ortiz, Cultural Ambassadors curriculum director.
The four-day experience included group activities, leadership training, and cultural workshops derived from the Cultural Ambassadors program. Thirty-seven students from nine states, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico arrived to the Hunter College Brookdale Campus on Tuesday, June 4, for an orientation led by student leaders Jose Israel Cruz, Jose Luis Rivera, and Alejandro Chardon. Centro Director Edwin Melendez also addressed the students. “This has been in the making for a long time,” said Dr. Melendez. “We have to start thinking about 9 million people because you cannot talk about Puerto Rican people without talking about transnationalism.” Later, the members of Bomba Yo treated students to a plena workshop.
Much of the conference program focused on the curriculum of the Cultural Ambassadors program, which was launched by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in December of 2016. As such, students attended a screening of the 2011 film Pura Belpré, A Storyteller from the Centro Pioneros series of documentaries. Students also participated in a discussion of the life and work of Belpré, who is known as the first Puerto Rican librarian to work within the New York City public library system. “This was a great opportunity to spread the Cultural Ambassador program to more campuses and communities,” said Melinda Gonzalez, coordinator of the program.
Participants spent Day 2 at the Brookdale campus discussing their roles as Puerto Rican student leaders within the context of a national student movement, one of the principal goals outlined during the conference, along with a National Puerto Rican Student agenda. Day 2 also included an extensive historical overview of the many factors that have contributed to the fiscal, humanitarian, and political crisis that continue to affect Puerto Rico. Much of the presentation was derived from the Centro report, Puerto Rico Post-Hurricane Maria: Origins and Consequences of a Crisis.
Students also reflected on themes of intellectual development, strengthening community ties, and converting their presence on campus into collective actions of solidarity with Puerto Rico. Social entrepreneurship was another key concept introduced during the day, with students encouraged to take advantage of the model proposed by IDEA Comun, a collaborative initiative that brings together community and civic organizations, the private sector, academics, and other stakeholders for the purpose of promoting sustainable and comprehensive economic development projects with a social purpose. Lastly, students learned about Geographic Information Systems (GIS), an invaluable tool that Centro has incorporated into its Rebuild Puerto Rico initiative, specifically with the goal of providing data that will have an impact on the decisions of policymakers and all those who are working toward a better future for Puerto Rico.
The cohort then traveled to the 68th Street Hunter College campus for Day 3 of the Encuentro. There, they listened to a panel discussion featuring Nicholas Kanellos, founder of Arte Públic Press, and Dr. Virginia Sánchez-Korrol, author, historian, and Professor Emerita in the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College. The final day of the Encuentro included a trip to the Centro Library & Archives located in the Hunter College Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem, where students were presented with their certificates of completion of the Cultural Ambassadors program. Afterwards, the student leaders were divided into two groups, with one group visiting the 2019 Whitney Museum Biennial and the other going on a walking tour of El Barrio.
“Everyone here brought something to the table, we connected because we’re here for a greater cause and I’m happy to be a part of that,” said Orosmar Cueva of Queens College. “[As we were leaving] It felt like we knew each other for so long—it was that Puerto Rican bond we had.”
A full report of the Encuentro will be released shortly. To see photos from the event, click here.