“I have a vision for a world of peace and justice, and I will settle for nothing less than a world at peace with justice.”
-Luis Garden Acosta, (1945-2019)
On Tuesday evening, Luis Garden Acosta, beloved founder and president of El Puente in Williamsburg, died at the age of 73. He leaves behind an enduring legacy of activism and community organizing that stretches from the southside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn to Puerto Rico. The Center for Puerto Rican Studies extends its condolences to the family of Mr. Garden Acosta and the El Puente family.
Luis Garden Acosta was born in 1945 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, to a Dominican father and a Puerto Rican mother who had fled the island after her fiancé was killed during the Ponce Massacre of 1937. Mr. Garden Acosta would split his upbringing between the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Williamsburg, and Fort Greene. An early interest in community, as well as a strong influence from the Catholic Church, were fostered by the mentorship of a local pastor from St. Barbara’s Church. At the age of 15, Mr. Garden Acosta enrolled in St. Mary’s Seminary in Pennsylvania.
After earning a college degree, he prepared to become a priest but ultimately did not take his final vows. Mr. Garden Acosta credited watching Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech with influencing his decision. Instead, he returned to Brooklyn, where he joined a Catholic anti-war movement, in addition to becoming involved with the Young Lords as a member. In 1970, Mr. Garden Acosta began to study medicine, spending three years at Harvard. A move to Amherst, Massachusetts in 1973 to work as a substance abuse counselor coincided with the launch of a five-minute radio program on Latin American news, which quickly became a three-hour show called Dr. Salsa’s Medicine Show.
The show’s success eventually brought Mr. Garden Acosta back to New York City in 1980. However, his work at Greenpoint Hospital, which included a firsthand look at the youth violence in southside Williamsburg, convinced him to skip the syndication of his radio show in favor of helping his community. Mr. Garden Acosta recalled the death of a young hospital patient brought to the emergency room as a particularly impactful catalyst that would lead to the founding of El Puente. The organization would also serve as a institutional bridge between the progressive and religious circles to which Luis belonged, hence the name.
El Puente was founded in 1982 by Luis Garden Acosta, his wife, Frances Lucerna, and Gino Maldonado. Today, it is described as “a community human rights institution that promotes leadership for peace and justice through the engagement of members (youth and adult) in the arts, education, scientific research, wellness and environmental action.” An alternative high school, El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, was founded by Mr. Garden Acosta and his wife, Frances Lucerna, and Hector Calderón in 1993. The couple would later receive a generous award from the Heinz Family Foundation in 1999 for their work with the southside community. More recently, El Puente became involved in programs and initiatives aimed at combating climate change. The Latino Climate Action Network was founded in Puerto Rico in 2013. The Green Light District is another initiative recently launched by El Puente as “a strategic ten-year initiative to sustain, grow, green, and celebrate Williamsburg’s Southside community.”
“This is an immense loss,” said Centro Director Edwin Melendez. “Luis was a passionate and tireless advocate for both Puerto Rico and the southside community of Williamsburg. We are thankful for his support of the work of Centro, and his contributions to our mission. Thankfully, El Puente will carry on Luis’ commitment to the values of community organizing and social justice.”
According to Centro Librarian Anibal Arocho, Mr. Garden Acosta played an integral role in helping the Centro Library access the original issues of Palante, the official newspaper of The Young Lords, and convert them to microfilm. “This is a resource that has served numerous researchers over the years and is among one of the most requested resources available about the Young Lords,” said Arocho. More details on his life and contributions could be found in an extensive oral history interview as part of Centro’s 100 Puerto Ricans Oral History Project.