To celebrate the publication of the memoirs of the pioneering labor leader Gilberto Gerena Valentín, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies hosted an event at Hunter College’s 68th Street Campus that was joined via video conferencing by students and faculty from several universities in Puerto Rico – and with Gerena appearing from Arecibo.
Centro Publications Editor Xavier Totti moderated the event on Tuesday, May 6, and welcomed the video audience from Colegio Universitaro de San Juan, Universidad Interamericana, and the Universidad de Puerto Rico campuses in Arecibo and Río Piedras. In total, more than fifty people gathered for the opportunity to talk to and hear from Gerena Valentín.
Valentín’s memoir, Gilberto Gerena Valentín: My Life as a Community Activists, Labor Organizer and Progressive Politician in New York/Soy Gilberto Gerena Valentín: memorias de un puertorriqueño en New York, was published in 2013 both in English and Spanish by Centro Publications. It is a comprehensive look at his life and work, from his birth and early days in Lares, Puerto Rico, and his experiences in World War II to his extraordinary career as a labor organizer, civil rights leader and politician in New York City. The memoir is Valentín at his fiery best, telling stories with humor and passion and recounting his interactions with a diverse cast of 20th century luminaries, from Congressman Vito Marcantonio to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The students, faculty and community members saw clips from a recent interview done by Centro specifically for this event, followed by a session of questions and answers with the 97-year-old Valentín.
The video clips and Q&A, like the memoirs, featured Gerena’s insights on a range of topics, beginning with a discussion of the role his mother played in his formation. “My mother was very strict,” Gerena says in the first of the video clips, “she fought with everything it took and she believed in me. When I was young, I promised my mother that I’d grow up to be a good man. And I’ve done it. At my ninety-seven years of age, I have lived a very peaceful life.”
Valentín then explained the origins of his involvement in labor organizing, dating from his time in Puerto Rico when he was young. “For me, growing up in Lares, going to San Juan, going to Barrio Obrero, I was always associated with the workers’ struggle and the workers’ struggle strengthened me.” His involvement with the workers’ movement would increase upon his moving to New York City.
In another clip, Gerena narrated the story of his moving to El Barrio in 1940 and of his community organization there in the face of violence from slumlords and other groups. He told powerful stories about organizing Puerto Rican voting associations and fighting voter suppression efforts like English literacy tests.
In a separate clip from the pre-recorded interview, Valentín discussed El Congreso de Pueblos, an organization which he helped found and develop. El Congreso, he said, was about much more than organizing cultural festivals such as the Puerto Rican Day Parade. It served crucial functions in the struggle against workplace discrimination and in the organization more generally of the growing Puerto Rican community in the United States. “When El Congreso de Pueblos was founded in 1952 and all these organizations came together,” he explained, “they created this really strong, united Puerto Rican community.”
He talked about organizing hotel workers from 28 hotels where the majority of the workers were Puerto Rican. From the first hotel, “at Madison and seventy-something…we agreed to call all the Puerto Ricans from different hotels to an assembly. We had it at a place called the Manhattan Center. It was for reunions. We rented a small room and about 50 people came to participate.”
The Puerto Rican workers who gathered that day represented a huge cross-section of towns in Puerto Rico, and they all agreed to contact even more hotels where Puerto Ricans were working and re-convene in six months. “And in six months,” Valentín said, “we had almost a thousand delegates. Almost all the towns in Puerto Rico were incorporated, including Culebra and Vieques. And that’s where the Congreso de Pueblos started – that’s how it got its name.”
Later, a clip was shown of Valentín discussing his time as a New York City Councilmember representing The Bronx. He talked about his contentious campaign against the incumbent Ramon Vélez. “The New Alliance Party organized a fabulous campaign in District Eleven,” he recounted, “where blacks, Italians, Irish, Catholics and Protestants all came together for Gerena Valentín through the Presbyterian Church. I had friends there, and they helped me with campaign funding.”
Between the video clips, Xavier Totti led the conversation among the attendees at Hunter, the students and faculty from the Puerto Rican universities and Gerena Valentín. Appearing live with the students at the UPR campus in Arecibo, Valentín answered questions from the various participants. He expanded on the themes of the pre-recorded clips – historical context, activism, and politics – and also talked about the coalitions he built with fellow civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King. As in the clips and his book, Gerena gave fascinating insights with his both funny and profound memories and ideas.
The participants were captivated by Gerena’s stories, and in addition to asking their questions they also took the opportunity to congratulate and thank Gerena for his pioneering contributions to the Puerto Rican community both on the island and in the United States.
Both the English and Spanish versions of Gerena Valentín’s memoirs (including an e-book of the Spanish version) are available for purchase at the Centro Store - http://www.centropr-store.com/books/