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Centro Preserves History of Puerto Rican Women

By Clarisel Gonzalez

As we celebrate Women's History Month in March, Centro pays tribute to Puerto Rican women who have paved the way, and continue to do so, in New York City and in enclaves across the United States.

For Dr. Virginia Sánchez-Korrol, a historian and professor emerita at Brooklyn College, preserving the story of Puerto Rican women is a mission she lives by. She is especially interested in Puerto Ricans and Latinas in the United States and regularly writes about the history of women, family and ethnicity in New York City.

This scholar, who is former chair of the Department of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Brooklyn College, is among the diverse group of women who have joined our 100 Puerto Ricans Preserving Our History campaign and who have committed to donating their papers and/or oral histories to the Centro Archives. The campaign is designed to identify relevant personalities and individuals whose contributions to the Puerto Rican communities in the United States are (or were) significant in various areas such as community building, leadership, business, education, government, social welfare, sciences, religion, arts and entertainment and to collect and preserve these stories in the Centro Archives. For the 100 campaign, Centro has made an effort to increase the scope of the collections from women.

Other distinguished women who have joined the 100 Puerto Ricans so far include New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre founder Miriam Colón and Colonel Maritza Sáenz Ryan, the first Puerto Rican West Point graduate to serve there as a professor.

Mayra Torres, Centro’s assistant director for development, media and external relations, said, “There are multiple reasons why it is important to have and preserve the documents of Puerto Rican women in our Archives.

“In our society at one point, we were raised to believe that the women are the homemakers and men are the caretakers,” she said. “An archives equipped with information about Puerto Rican women would serve to dispel the myths about the stereotypical role ascribed to Puerto Rican women.

“Indeed, having the papers of women for almost half of the 100 Puerto Ricans collection will allow future generations to know that we were also, lawyers, activists, executives, elected officials among others in addition to homemakers and mothers,” she said. “These future generations can read about our stories and aspire to dream and become productive members of the community.”

Centro’s Senior Archivist Pedro Juan Hernández said that the recent contributions of oral histories and papers are of great value and will significantly enhance the resources available in our already extensive Archives. Generally, he said, the Centro Archives has “a good representation of women,” many of them pioneers.

The top five most popular women-related collections at the Centro Archives at this time are those of: Pura Belpré, a children’s storyteller, puppeteer and author who was the first Puerto Rican and Latina at the New York Public Library; Dr. Antonia Pantoja, an educator, social worker, feminist, civil rights leader who founded ASPIRA and who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award of the United States; Dr. Helen Rodríguez-Trías, a pediatrician, public health advocate and women rights activist who was the recipient of the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the second highest civilian award in the United States; Lillian López, one of the first Puerto Rican librarians in the New York Public Library and a pioneer in her efforts to create library services and programs for Puerto Ricans and other Latinos; and United Bronx Parents, Inc., an organization founded by community organizer and civil rights activist Evelina López Antonetty. Centro’s Library and Archives was dedicated to López Antonetty in 1986.

This is only a snapshot of the women in our Archives as Centro continues collecting papers and oral histories to better reflect the story of the Puerto Rican experience in the United States.

But historian CUNY Sánchez-Korrol noted that there is a need not only to tell the stories of the well-known and accomplished women, but to document and preserve the lives of the more ordinary women. In an article titled “A Forgotten Piece of Women’s History,” she wrote that hardly anyone remembers the rank-and-file women who helped build New York's Puerto Rican communities during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

In her article, she concluded that: “In recent years, it seems we've tended to highlight the exceptional woman in history erasing the labors of past generations from the collective memory. Not quite realizing that behind every exceptional woman there is a community of faceless and nameless women who have helped sustain her, the legacies of the migrant women from Puerto Rico, sculptors of today's communities in New York, are all but forgotten.” Many of these lesser known women, particularly pioneros, are represented in the Archives.

You can find the Guide to Centro Archives and our publications based on the Pura Belpré collection at http://www.centropr-store.com/.