A message from Directora Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez

This fall, I begin my term as the eighth Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (CENTRO). As the first Afro-Puertoriqueña to lead this storied institution in its 50-year history, I step into this role just in time to celebrate an exciting new chapter at CENTRO and at a critical moment where we are envisioning the future of Puerto Rican Studies, writ large.

I come to CENTRO as a daughter of the Diaspora with roots in Caguas and Vega Baja, Puerto Rico born and raised in Hoboken, NJ, a city that boasted the largest Puerto Rican population per capita in the 1970s-1980s. I have been shaped by the circular migration and deep ties to my family in la barriada Morales, Tomás de Castro, El Alto de Cuba, Almirante Norte, and points beyond. The youngest of four siblings from a working-poor family, I am a first generation high school and college graduate. It was at Rutgers –where I earned my Bachelor’s Degree in English, Puerto Rican & Hispanic Caribbean Studies, and Women’s & Gender Studies– that I came to a political consciousness that helped shape my life.

I earned my MA and PhD in Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University California, Berkeley in a time where we were celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of Ethnic Studies. The founding of CENTRO is an integral part of this same history of struggle.  As I have written before, “Ethnic Studies is a lifeline, an insurgent emancipatory project, a mode of survival in the fullest sense, and a necessary practice that, should it be taken seriously within the self-proclaimed hallowed halls of educational institutions and their innumerable administrators and leaders, would lead to a transformation of knowledge itself and enable liberatory political and social projects to be undertaken in earnest with the seriousness they deserve.” 

As a transdisciplinary humanist, I came to understand Ethnic Studies as a method of study and a sociopolitical worldview that saw the struggles of colonized and oppressed people as interlinked, and complex coalition building as central to the dismantling of systems of ongoing colonialism and oppression. I spent years teaching Native American, Asian American, Central American, African and African American, Caribbean, and Puerto Rican literatures and histories alongside each other, finding ways to make relations across these disparate yet interwoven experiences. My first book, Decolonizing Diasporas (now available in Spanish) examined the long history of relations between Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Equatorial Guinea. I studied how their cultural productions offer us new ways to imagine well-worn themes across the histories of colonialism, dictatorship, imperialism, dispossession, and decolonization. It was through this transatlantic, hemispheric, and Afro-Atlantic project that I found myself meditating deeply about the Puerto Rican archipelago and its diasporas, thinking through the lives and legacies of Afro-Boricua quotidian life. My current book, The Survival of a People, counters the erasure of Afro-Puerto Ricans in the colonial archive and in contemporary cultural memory from the late 19th century to the present by weaving together oral histories, intimate archives, and public memory projects. 

Similar to the arch of my intellectual work, my vision for CENTRO is rooted and relational. CENTRO’s work must be rooted in Puerto Rican life, history, culture, and worldviews and must be relational in its efforts to make connections with Boricua communities, organizations, and institutions across the US and the archipelago. CENTRO is a world-class institute that can reach outwardly to strengthen bonds of mutual support and solidarity across the Puerto Rican Diaspora as well as across Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.

I hope to bring forward my commitment to mentoring and supporting the next generation of scholars through our Research Associate Program and scholarly events and workshops. I will work on bringing more funding and support to our beloved Archives and Library, to expand the Diasporican Art in Motion initiative, and continue to serve our communities through educational programming. We are poised to uplift often-peripheralized populations and knowledges and I am particularly excited to center the work of Afro-Boricua writers, thinkers, and artists with special attention to gender, sex, sexuality, and feminist politics. My experience with the Digital Humanities (DH) and as the director of grant-funded and award-winning projects will be useful as we expand our born-digital media and our community driven DH research. With the support of key faculty, we will continue the excellent work of CENTRO Journal, the foremost in the field, and revitalize CENTRO Press which attends to some of the most pressing preoccupations, interests and needs of Puerto Rican peoples and scholars in the field of Puerto Rican and Latine Studies. 

CENTRO will continue to be a multi-disciplinary institution that brings arts, culture, and humanistic perspectives to bear on our long-standing strengths in data, statistics, and public policy. We have key hires to make in the coming years that will help us fulfill our mission to create actionable and accessible scholarship to strengthen, broaden, and reimagine the field of Puerto Rican studies. The unprecedented support we have received over the last two years culminated in a $20M gift from the state of New York that is earmarked to find us a permanent home at CUNY. In the coming years I look forward to unifying CENTRO staff in one location to better serve the community that we love so much.

I feel an ethical, political, and cultural commitment to CENTRO as a beacon of Puerto Rican scholarship, activism, culture, and research. In taking this role I want to protect what our community fought so hard to create and I want to honor all that we are and all that we want to become as Boricuas. 


Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez
Directora of CENTRO