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[ 160 ]
By now, many
students trained at ASPIRA, the premiere youth
organization created by Dr. Antonia Pantoja and her colleagues in 1961,
were enrolled in a pre-bachelor’s and SEEK (Search for Elevation, Education,
and Knowledge) program at City College. These remedial programs were
established in 1965 to recruit black and Puerto Rican students into the CUNY
system. Influenced by the emerging social movements of the day, these Puerto
Rican students advocated for an extension of community control in the college.
Organizing to change the university system’s exclusionary policies,
a coalition of black and Puerto Rican students took over the campus for two
weeks. That takeover opened up the entire CUNY system, established Puerto
Rican Studies and ethnic studies programs in public and private institutions in
New York and throughout the country, and brought in Puerto Rican and black
professors and administrators into the educational system.
The following interview is an effort to re-capture this largely unchronicled history
in which Puerto Ricans advocated for a pluralistic society and laid down a foundation
of educational civil rights in New York City that impacted the entire country.
All of the interviewees were members of the Puerto Ricans Involved in Student
Action (PRISA), the Puerto Rican student club at CCNY that was intimately
involved in the 1969 takeover with its African-American counterpart, Onyx.
Henry Arce:
My name is Henry Arce, and I’m currently a language consultant.
Eduardo “Pancho” Cruz:
My name is Eduardo Cruz, and I am an attorney, both in
New York and New Jersey.
Fernando “Tony” González:
Fernando González. I’m a realtor.
Obdulia Pérez González:
Obdulia Pérez González. I’m a high school guidance
counselor. I’ve been doing that for about thirty years in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Migdalia Pérez:
Migdalia Pérez. I’m also a high school guidance counselor. I work
in New York City at the I-House in Washington Irving.
Lillian Jiménez
: Can you tell me what the high school experience was like for a
Puerto Rican in the ‘50s?
Migdalia and I are sisters, and we both went to Thomas Jefferson
[High School] in Brooklyn. And we were honor students, and that meant something
different than being in the regular school population. I remember that it was she,
and I, and one other minority student in all of our classes for four years.
I was isolated in junior high school because I was in an honors class and
I skipped the eighth grade. And when I came into high school, I felt that I was very
young. But I also felt very much like I was the only one of my kind. My sister and I
were close, and that kind of helped. But overall it was very hard. When I became an
honor school student, then I almost became invisible to the other students. I felt
that there wasn’t an acknowledgement of my existence as another kid.
Well, in James Monroe High School [in the South Bronx], we had a large
number of Latinos, Italians, Blacks. It was a good mix in terms of races and ethnics
groups, and it was a lot of good times. I remember singing in the choir; we had
concerts. The stage was the largest stage in New York City, second to perhaps
Carnegie Hall. And, so it was a lot of fun, lots of social interaction. I got involved in
A young girl by the name of Borinquen, of all names, invited me to come
to a meeting to learn more about Puerto Ricans, our history, to practice Spanish,
and to learn about leadership. And it was the beginning of a life-long involvement
with ASPIRA. And that has helped me in many ways. But I was a fairly average
student. I didn’t excel academically; I excelled socially (laughs). But it was fortunate
that in fact I didn’t have that high average, because that was what ultimately allowed
me to go into the SEEK program in City College was that my grades weren’t that
high. But I showed potential.
I attended Seward Park High School in the Lower East Side, which was a
predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. I came from Catholic school and during
the ‘60s, the discipline would be physical discipline, corporal punishment. I had this
nun who was seventy years old, hitting on me until the sixth grade when I refused
to have anybody touch me. I went to public school. I was involved in basketball.
That was my major issue. When I was in the twelfth grade, I went to ASPIRA for
help, [but I] didn’t get any help. I went to college through the SEEK program.
I went to William Howard Taft [in the Bronx], and that was a
predominantly Jewish school. So I lived in two worlds at that point in my life.
I cannot recall having a very pleasant [experience], except that I was very athletic
and I excelled in that area. But in the academic area, I didn’t feel part of it, so I
didn’t participate academically to a great degree ‘til I actually came in contact with
ASPIRA. And then, that kind of turned my life around; I was able to end up in
City College with ASPIRA support.
How is it that ASPIRA turned your life around?
Well, it was an organization where I as a young man was able to
participate. I met a Puerto Rican teacher who took an interest in me, and that
kind of made me deviate from a lot of the street things that I could have ended up
participating in. I can freely say that if it was not for ASPIRA, I would not be as
successful as I am today.
What was City College’s reputation in the ‘60s?
City College was the poor man’s Harvard during the ‘60s. Grad alumni
like Dr. Salk [Jonas Salk], graduated from there; he developed the vaccine for
polio. Also City College controlled the city government in New York City.
Because City College was not only pro liberal arts, it was also known for business.
Baruch College, now a separate entity, was part of City College in the ‘60s. As a
matter of fact, the only way you could get to City College was maintaining a high
level in your grades and your SATs. And every year that would either go up or down
depending on the overall average of the student body.
A student coming out of high school sort of competed to get into the
[ 161 ]
four-year colleges. I had an 88 average; you had to be in the 80s and 90s. So, if
you got into City College you felt it was something very special. And it had an
engineering school, and I recall a Puerto Rican that I knew from my neighborhood
who got into the engineering school. So we felt very much a selected group when
we went to college at that time.
There was a teacher counselor in our high school who tried to encourage
us to go to other colleges. But we didn’t feel comfortable. We didn’t know how.
We couldn’t handle the financial explanations. We weren’t brave enough.
There wasn’t enough information given to us to make other choices, even though
this woman talked about Yale, this woman talked about Manhattanville
to us.
She talked about these other schools because we were like the cream [of the crop].
The difficult part for me was that nobody was able to break through
and communicate with me the importance of these colleges that were attempting
to recruit me. We didn’t really have anyone assigned to help us, and we were the
honor students. For me the decision was very difficult, and it boiled down to how
I felt about leaving my family. We lived in Brownsville [Brooklyn], where we barely
had connections to even social institutions besides the Church. So, there was
so little in terms of experience. And when we showed up, we did it without our
parents. Our parents weren’t there. Our parents were busy taking care of the other
children. So we were really sort of going off on our own on this. We were really two
little Puerto Rican girls in the middle of a group of white girls.
We had moved to 140th Street and 8th Avenue, so we could actually see
the [City college] campus. And the architecture is just gorgeous. Those campuses
are outrageously beautiful. I also knew about its reputation. I mean, it wasn’t just like
the poor man’s Harvard. It had a worldwide reputation for the Sciences, Architecture,
Business, and Education. This was like a dream. When I got the opportunity to go
through the SEEK program, I jumped at it. I could have gone to the University of
Puerto Rico. But then my counselor told me about the pre-Bachelor’s program at City
College, which is the precursor to the SEEK program. And how could I say no to a
stipend, to counseling, to tutoring, remedial work that I knew I needed. And, and a
fabulous school right in the middle of Harlem. Couldn’t, couldn’t be better.
[ 162 ]
And what was your first day like?
I really felt proud and honored to be there. I felt lucky also to be there.
I used to watch all these John Wayne movies. He was my hero. And I went ahead
and I joined ROTC
almost like immediately. And I figured, well, I can get an
education, rather than being drafted into the Service, I can go in directly as a
Second Lieutenant. That lasted for a long year until the education started bringing
out other information that I had no idea about. So, you learn the contradictions
and you find out different things. So the experience of City College was just
memorable. I loved it. Great college!
I think what was important for me the first day at City College was,
it was mystical. Here, I barely got through high school. And I said, “How am I
going to learn?” I suffer from dyslexia. I was never given formal training, so I had
to educate myself through that. But, I was telling myself, “If I can make it and I
fight for it, I can have others in the community [make it].”
When I came on campus, I began to organize. I started debating at Shepard
Hall for the independence of Puerto Rico. And from there I learned. I went
to—1968—I went to Chicago, the convention
with some radicals from the Bronx.
I had participated on the campus with the club, the Puerto Rican Club, which was
the Puerto Rican Institute. It was too superficial. There was nothing really done.
They had no plan. And I had spoken to Iris Morales, Tony Gonzalez, and Henry,
and we started meeting and creating the foundation for PRISA.
In essence,
my goal was to bring professionals who had a dedication back to the community.
I am realizing as I’m seated here that there was a difference in my
experience, because my sister and I didn’t come in with the support of the SEEK
program. And I think that made a very big difference. We almost didn’t stay
because we had no money to pay for books, and we didn’t even have money for
the consolidated fee. And we had to figure out on a day-to-day basis how we were
going to stay there. And I remember going to someone who told me that college
wasn’t for everyone, when I presented him with my problem.
I did it working full time. I went to work immediately. I started college
and work. And I remember it was an art form for a freshman at CCNY, when you
couldn’t get your classes, to register for classes from 8:00 to 1:00, because from
1:00 to 6:00, I took that train downtown and I went to work. And if she [Migdalia]
wasn’t working, I made sure I paid her fees, and mine, and the train, and our bagel,
and whatever else it took. And I, I remember my interview with the person who
would determine whether we were SEEK or not. And what was told to me,
“You’re going to make it, no matter what the odds are for you, because you already have.
You’ve demonstrated that you could, you could do this. We are not worried about
you, you making it.” And I don’t know, I think that maybe gave me some courage.
I came from a very strict Puerto Rican home. My father didn’t let us go anywhere.
I mean that they let us go to college was pretty good, and you know, they wanted us
home at 3 o’clock. We didn’t socialize. We didn’t get very involved. I didn’t have fun.
I mean, I was on a mission to get an education and it was like my sole purpose.
So, who made you feel welcome?
The cafeteria workers (Laughs) made us feel comfortable; it’s funny
because hunger was a thing for us. We were really skinny, like under ninety pounds,
I think. There were nine kids in our family. There was not that much food to really
go around. But we went to school with maybe a quarter or a dime after paying for
the ferryboat, and the train. And we would always have money for coffee and a
[ 163 ]
[ 164 ]
bagel. And the men who worked in the cafeteria, I think that
le daba pena
They felt sorry for us. And they would see us coming with our meager little selves.
And they would put like a pound of cream cheese on our bagel. And they would
say, “
Mira nena
, you’re really skinny.” They would help us; they greeted us. It was
from them, it wasn’t from faculty. It wasn’t from other students.
The nice thing about the SEEK program was that the majority of the
students were Blacks or Latinos. So that in many ways we could hang together,
we went to class together. We had to take this remedial English, remedial math,
and so we were together. We had counseling groups. We had counselors who were
just super with us. They gave us a lot of support. Support that we weren’t getting
at home in many instances, or elsewhere.
Some teachers used to challenge us: “What are you doing here?” They looked
down upon us because they knew that we had come in with less than stellar
credentials. Despite the fact that we were handling the work. I mean, it’s one
thing if we weren’t handling the work, but we were doing it. It was more difficult,
perhaps, for us, but we had some really dedicated teachers. I mean this one short
teacher, an Italian guy. He used to
across the floor from one side to the
other, saying “What is that tense? It’s the perfect, present perfect.” But it was
interesting finally to really get that deep and, that kind of foundation in English,
and the same thing in math.
So I met Henry, I met Pancho; the SEEK program provided the
guidance, these significant people that I get very emotional about. Then we also
had another additional thing, we actually had a dormitory experience. We had the
Alamac Hotel. The powers that be at that time, and the people that put the SEEK
program together, recognized that many of us needed to be removed from that
environment. If I would’ve stayed living at home.
It’s true though. I was the first student to move in to the Alamac Hotel,
talking about needing a change of the environment. I fully support what Tony’s
saying. It was a totally different experience. We were placed in 71st Street and
Broadway in this hotel. There were two floors for men and two floors for women,
and too many floors in between (Laughs). The good thing about that, here we now
had students not only from the City College, but we had students from Brooklyn,
from Lehman, from Hunter,
from the other schools that had SEEK programs.
[ 165 ]
The Alamac Hotel became the SEEK dormitory. And it was like they only could
take in maybe twenty, thirty students per college. So we must have had like two
hundred, three hundred kids living there. And it was a fabulous experience.
That’s where we started to meet. Pancho and I and Iris Morales,
and we started the
basis for what ultimately became Puerto Ricans Involved in Student Action, PRISA.
It’s very important to understand that SEEK was not made for us to
be successful in a sense, because they placed us in the worst part of the city. It was
known as Needle Park.
It was a drug-infested area. Many of the students of the
SEEK program failed as a result of drugs, those who came to the dorms. I was
the first president of the SEEK dormitory, and that became one of the issues.
Because a lot of the students there were smoking grass, and some had gone as
far as using cocaine and heroin. And we tried to deal with that problem because
we knew if the dorm failed, this would be a domino effect in bringing down the
SEEK program. So, we played an important role in safeguarding the program and
bringing about the success of the SEEK program. It was geared for Black students,
not Puerto Rican students per se or Latinos. I know that I confronted the SEEK
program in not having a Puerto Rican history class, leadership, or staff.
The political times was that all the ghettos throughout the United States were
blowing up: Watts, Detroit, the Lower East Side went up, Harlem had gone up.
This was a problem, and the government allowed money to come in, and people
began to use it to try to get those leaders out of the ghettos into becoming middle
class and reforming and conforming. For the first time the New York school
system was changed to community control. The neighborhoods would control
their own schools, setting up the curriculum. The union, the teachers union,
[Albert] Shanker who was the [United Federation of Teachers] president,
ordered a strike in 1968 against decentralization.
In 1968, when they had the
teacher’s strike, I went up opening school doors.
How many Puerto Rican students were on campus, in the mid to late ‘60s?
There were approximately 3 percent (Black and Latino students) of the
entire student body of City College; that’s both Baruch, City College downtown
and uptown, and day and evening classes.
According to statistics that I recall there were something like twenty-
nine thousand students [on campus]. Out of that there was something like three
to four thousand minority students. That included night and day, downtown
campus and south campus. We thought there were very few people of color on
campus until we had a march. I remember on November 19, 1968, PRISA was
formed. PRISA stands for Puerto Ricans Involved in Student Actions or Affairs,
depending on where we involved at the time. If we were involved in taking over
the campus, it was Action. If it was something more conservative, we would say
Student Affairs. So we would play with the words a little. In November 1968 we did
the first activity. And you know, many of us knew each other. We started to march
down from North campus, coming down Convent Avenue. We started with about
fifteen people and by the time we got to South campus, we had something like
three to four hundred students; we marched to Finley Hall. But we used that as an
organizational tool to see how many people we could get involved with PRISA.
One of the things that we recognized from working and meeting at
the Alamac Hotel was to see what can we could do to really influence the SEEK
program. That was almost our immediate concern because of how few Latinos,
Puerto Rican counselors there were, if any. There was no other staff. It was, again
like Pancho was saying, geared towards the African-American community. We were
starting to meet about that, but then we recognized it was more than just that.
One other thing, I remember sharing with Pancho, Iris, and others was that
we needed to reach out to all of our communities, because we were too small
in numbers to limit ourselves to the politically correct. We had to reach out to
those who were not politically correct. Those who thought that we were white
as opposed to people of color. Those who thought that all that we should be
concerned about is just school. Those who thought that it’s important to have time
to go dancing and everything else. And that’s how we reached out to everybody.
We had a committee for social issues; we had a committee for political issues;
we had a committee for educational issues.
Why did you need an organization called PRISA for Puerto Ricans?
Well, there was an organization there, the Puerto Rican Institute.
Their primary issue was literature, Puerto Rican literature. We had the poet
laureate of Puerto Rico, Dra. Diana Ramírez de Arellano. Fabulous woman.
Despite, you know, others might have though that she was just into poetry.
She was really a firebrand. Because we came from ASPIRA, we were already
planners. So we didn’t arrive at City College blind or without any thought about
what to do. We knew we had to organize. There was a need, and we had practiced
[ 166 ]
it already in our high schools through ASPIRA. And we started to do that there at
the college; we needed it, it had to be done. Why? The first contradiction was our
small number in a community that was predominantly Black and Latino. It was like
the biggest contradiction to hit us at that point, and we recognized that we had
to begin to adjust that issue. And we began looking at the SEEK program because
here we are, the SEEK program winners. Yeah, but what about me as a Puerto
Rican? I don’t see counselors who are Puerto Ricans or teachers who are Puerto
Ricans, or staff who are Puerto Rican. I mean nobody. It was all Black, African-
American staff and Whites as well. But when you open your eyes …
I think PRISA was the result of a lot of things that came about.
Pancho ran for president of the [Almanac] dormitory. Henry ran for student body
president…. We were all over the place. But there was really no place where we
shared. In fact, some of us were members of the Onyx society [the black student
organization] at that time also. And we would always bring some recognition of the
Puerto Rican. But there was no place that we kind of came together. And Pancho,
and Henry, and a few other people said, “Look, why don’t we create something?”
I think our first meeting probably was at the Alamac, and we came up with the
name Azabache originally. It became a problem with the name Azabache and Onyx.
The name was too close, and people felt that we needed to create our own identity.
I think at that meeting there most have been about one hundred twenty-five
Hispanics, Puerto Ricans mainly…. And we wanted it to be something unique to us.
That was the first time that somebody said to me there’s something
here for you. I knew that there were sororities, I knew there was a house plan,
I knew there were organizations, but this was the first time that I actually went to
find that organization because I needed to find someone that I could identify with.
So I remember those meetings and I remember when you said, “Who welcomed
you?” Really, me personally, the person who I am, that’s when I felt welcomed.
I felt that I was part of something that was happening here.
And we wanted to insure that Puerto Rican is actually in the name of
the organization. If we’re going to really stand out, then we want something
that represents Puerto Rican identity. And what are we? We are students.
And ultimately when we put it to a vote, they came to change it from Azabache
to Puerto Ricans Involved in Student Action.
What were some of the things that were impacting on you as students?
You have to understand that we came directly from communities that
had riots, such as the Lower East Side. And then you see from 2nd street all the
way to 10th street had been burned out. So you have to understand also in El Barrio
there was police brutality; people had been killed by the cops, and we felt also that
there was trouble in education. You had community control, you had the teachers
striking. You had all these mass demonstrations that you had to deal with. I felt
getting an education meant that I would come back to the community with a skill.
One of the important things about PRISA was that we would be able to funnel
those people that graduated, back to the community to assess and help our people.
That was the environment that we were in. I had gone to see Martin
Luther King speak, and I was convinced that nonviolence was the way. I had read
about Gandhi, and nonviolence seemed more powerful than giving up your life
with a gun. And not to put anybody down who went that way. I’m just simply
saying that was not the way I was going to go. I mean, Malcom X was a major,
major figure and influence. H. Rap Brown,
a lot of other Black figures,
[ 167 ]
were also important. But we also needed to study Puerto Rican leaders. I mean
at the time, one city council member, one of the few ones, Gilberto Gerena
embraced our movement. There was a community leader in the Bronx,
Evelina [López] Antonetty. This woman created United Bronx Parents
and many
programs for education in the middle of the burned-out Bronx, right on Prospect
Avenue. We used to maintain that community consciousness, that community
connection, even though we were focusing our main attention at City College.
Tell me more about PRISA’s achievements.
Prior to the take over Charles Tejada, [a PRISA member], a history major,
negotiated with the [history] department to create a Puerto Rican History course.
I used to bring my conga to school and play in Finley Student Center.
And this was right where the Music Department was at. And they used to
complain, “What are these people doing with these drums?” We said,
“Well you don’t have music here that represents us.” And ultimately we were
able to negotiate a Latin-music course, and Charlie Palmieri
was our first
teacher. And that was a major accomplishment.
Now tell me why City College was taken over by students in 1969?
I remember that one of the Black students came over to the PRISA
meeting telling us, “Look it has reached the point that the SEEK students are
being discriminated against.” In Harlem, if you were part of the SEEK Program,
they would sit you on one side of the classroom, and the regular students would sit
on the other. We were excluded from basketball; we were excluded from almost
everything. As SEEK students we were being rejected.
Yeah, but this was a very strategic process where we decided that we
would work together with Onyx, because we were the primary minority student
organizations on campus, Onyx and PRISA. We said, “We’re going to have to
work together on this to make this really work. And so we developed the demands,
and how to present them. We went to [President] Gallagher’s
office that first
time and plastered our demands all over his office in the administration building.
And we planned another takeover of the administration building when he didn’t
respond, and covered up all the windows with newspaper print. And then we
exited the building while the police were being called. And they thought that we
were still inside. And they circled an empty building. But meantime we were down
in South campus. We re-constituted our entire group and began to create the
Committee of Ten; this was a representative body combining both the leadership
of PRISA and ONYX. From that we also then began to say, “Well, how can we get
more people involved?” And so we said, “Why don’t we run a slate of students for
student government?” And we had a whole Black and Puerto Rican slate that ran
for student government. I was selected to be the presidential candidate. And that
energized a number of students who were like, you know, one hundred percent
democracy. This is the democratic way. Let’s poll for elections; let’s try to win.
We didn’t think that we were going to because our numbers were so small.
But it still drew in a lot more people who joined PRISA and ONYX.
And what were the demands?
The demands were the establishment of a school of Black and Puerto
Rican Studies and the creation of an orientation program for new students,
freshman students who were entering City College so that they would not have to
face this isolation that [Migdalia] described so very well. And, that we all in many
ways experienced. That Education majors study not only Puerto Rican History and
[ 168 ]
Black History, but also take Spanish so that they would be better prepared to deal
with our students in our schools. That the entering classes be representative of the
ratio of graduating students so that, if we are graduating let’s say 40 percent across
the board in NYC, so the entering class would be 40 percent Black and Puerto
Rican. The last one was that…
We control the SEEK program.
Right, it had to do with the SEEK program. That SEEK students have a
voice in hiring and firing of staff at the SEEK program.
Henry mentioned the Committee of Ten. We, Puerto Ricans and
Blacks on campus, made a decision that we needed to keep our information very
confidential. I recall when the decision was made to actually take over the campus;
it was not a unanimous decision by all means. People were scared. People were
concerned what their academic future was going to be because it was in the middle
or toward the end of the academic year. I had started school in September of 1965.
My graduation was coming forth very quickly. We didn’t want to be in school
forever. That decision to take over the campus on that particular day was not an
easy decision to make.
What happened April 22, 1969? How did you take that school over?
Ok, what happened really was that…
You overslept.
(laughs) Yeah, I overslept. I arrived at 9 o’clock.
Well, it was very cold, and at 6 o’clock it was still not that light out.
But that sort of gave us the cover of darkness. We had certain cells, meaning groups
of students of us who would go into one particular gate. We had about three or four
gates on South campus. And once we closed them down, then the only people who
were coming in, who we allowed in, were members of the takeover group,
and supporters. The Burns Guards, security guards, we took them by surprise.
They didn’t expect this. We were very, very organized. We locked everything down.
I remember what happened was that we found out about the takeover
over the news. And my sister had gotten some information about where these
people were. We went to the Alamac to meet people who were involved in the
takeover because we wanted to be involved. By connecting with PRISA,
by connecting with the takeover. That was like a very crucial part in our lives,
not only educationally but also personally in terms of developing an identity.
I wanted to be part of something because it helped me to understand the world
that I lived in. Because there was so much happening and I needed to know, well,
who I was in all of this context? And what was I going to do with that education?
Where was I going? Those were all the questions that, I think, anybody who is in
college has to answer. There were no answers for me without the context of who I
[ 169 ]
was. And I was a Puerto Rican, and nobody had an answer for me until I was able
to connect with people who gave that, you know, that presence. Who helped with
the identity, and who also gave the leadership. And living at that time you almost
could not imagine been educated and not becoming part of a movement.
You know because it cemented a part of my identity that I was trying
so hard to hold on to. And which I didn’t have because we were being pulled into
that other world that Fernando talks about, where the names are changed from
Fernando to Tony, from Obdulia to Obi. It cemented our feeling that it’s ok to
be who we are. Look, I know my history, I know my language. I know iambic
pentameter, I know where to put the accents. You know, it was a struggle to
keep that, to say that enriches me, and I’m not letting that go.
We were involved in the cell groups. We were involved in the meetings.
We were involved in the distribution of literature. And we were involved in
all those meetings where things came up that were relevant. So we participated,
you know, during the school hours, and then we went home. But, you know,
we were not in the gate at 6:00 in the morning.
But we took it upon ourselves to go to the South campus because we
felt that we belonged there. When that was happening, I knew that that’s where I
wanted to be. I knew what limitations I had in terms of my family, but I also knew
that that’s where I was going. So we did go into the South campus and spent some
time there. You know students who were not part of this didn’t go to school at
all because they didn’t know what to expect. I did the opposite. I wanted to go to
where they were. I wanted to be a part of it.
What were some of the activities you were involved in during the takeover?
We, we did a lot of community stuff. A big part, I think, of the
movement was educating the community. And we used to spend days tracking
up and down with leaflets and information about what was happening at the
university. I remember that being the beginning of my, you know, my involvement.
This was one of the things that I wanted to do. And I felt that our demands were
clear. You know, well thought out and a long time coming. These are things we
should not have to be asking you for. I think that’s where nonnegotiable came
from. It’s like, what do you mean? Why should we even have to negotiate?
This seems like our rights, which you have never acknowledged. And we are
telling you now. We, we want them! We’re getting them! And you know what, in
retrospect we were savvy, sophisticated, you know. We were leaders. At that time,
I thought we were a bunch of crazy weird kids, twenty-year-olds. And my God,
now that I think back what a great undertaking, and challenge, and what it could’ve
turned into. I mean Kent State
happened right about that time.
That was part of the plan. We wanted to have a community support group.
We wanted to have a public affairs group. We wanted to have an education group.
Because we turned City College into “Harlem University.” We were determined to
educate at the school while it was closed. And that was critical. My mother used to
be in Head Start, a family assistant. So she had a group of twenty-five parents;
they used to bring us big pots of rice and beans and pork and
. I mean we
turned up some serious stuff. But that was all part of generating community support
for what we were doing. We didn’t want to be isolated. Which is what the police
wanted to do with us; which is what the school thought would happen to us. I used
to go to different colleges to let them know what we were doing. I went to a meeting,
to the Puerto Rican Educators Association meeting. I ran into Gerena Valentín,
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and I said, “I need to talk, I need to talk to our leadership in the educational community,
man.” They were having this big meeting. We went there, we collected money.
I called down to the Lower East Side; they brought like a hundred
parents to hold the gates. To make sure that the police would not come. I mean,
we had that support. I also remember going out with Henry. We went to Bronx
Community College and organized. Right after we talked, they sealed the campus
that night. We went down to Manhattan Community College. They had taken the
college. We went to another college.
Hunter. We went out to Brooklyn [College]. We went everywhere.
Henry’s yellow Volkswagen went everywhere throughout the city (Laughs).
What were some of the activities that you were undertaking during
that two-week period inside the school?
Free breakfast program for the children in the neighborhood, and day care.
We would have fairs for the whole community. We had political
education classes. Kathy Cleaver
gave a presentation. Queen Mother Moore,
Dixie Bayo from the Puerto Rican Movement, Julio Rosado
gave support.
We also removed the American flags from the polls and put up the Puerto Rican
and Black liberation flags (Laughs).
Can you, can you tell me about the role that you each played in the take over?
I stood on a gate for about twelve hours soaking wet with no jacket.
My brother saw me and lent me his jacket so I could stay warm. I remember
being up in front of 132nd Street, 133rd Street, and just standing there and
saying,“People can’t come in.” We had people in charge of medical.
I was a member of the Committee of Ten. I was one of the organizers,
part of the leadership. And my role was really to make sure that everything else was
flowing. We had a communication strategy as well, making sure that we wouldn’t
be surprised at one end or the other. So I had that little yellow [Volkswagon] bug,
inside the campus scuttling back and forth from different places, just to make sure
things were going as we had planned.
And how did the administration respond?
Their attitude is, “Look, we’ll do certain things, we’ll do this, we’ll do
this for you, but this we cannot do.” We never expected that we were going to be
there two weeks. We thought we would be arrested, and a lot of us were scared
of being arrested. Or they will come with helmets and crack our heads. I mean,
all those kind of fears. I think it was mainly because we had so much community
support, that they didn’t dare bring the police on campus.
How did the takeover end?
City College became the political hot potato, because the three
[Democratic Party] candidates running for mayor Badillo, Biaggi, Procaccino,
were all debating, including Lindsay [mayor of New York], were debating City College;
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discussing whether they should be giving in to these “radicals,” who were permitted
to go to City College, to allow them to have these demands.
The police had come to serve the injunction on us. We had, I think about
three hours or four hours to decide what we were going to do. The Committee
of Ten met, and there was a vote. They voted that we leave campus. I wanted to
stay and remain there to make an issue, but basically the majority wanted to leave.
We left marching out of campus…. But the campus take over did not end there.
Because the next couple of days we came back. As a result of disruption that we
caused, campus was shut down for the summer.
What the City University did was to implement Open Admissions.
They had been thinking about doing something similar and implementing it in
1975. So instead of ’75, they pushed it forward to 1970. One of the components
that I wanted to see in that demand was that [each CUNY college campus]
would adopt their local high school. So that the students would get that type
of additional support, remedial educational support, counseling support in
high school. So that when they got to college they would be even better
prepared. Unfortunately, you know, the Board of Education and the Board of
Higher Education at that time were not speaking to each other. They couldn’t
see what appears to me as a natural opportunity to work together for our
educational benefit. So, so they put in open admissions.
They also did encourage—I’m not sure if they made it a requirement—they
might have made a requirement for education majors to take Puerto Rican History,
African American History. They were encouraged to take Spanish. They weren’t
required to take Spanish. With regards to the SEEK program, they made concessions
to hire more Puerto Ricans staff and make it more diverse, but we didn’t get the say
so on hiring and firing that we were looking for. They did give in with regards to the
school of Black and Puerto Rican Studies, of Third World Studies, I think we called
it. Ultimately they called it the School of Urban Studies, where they had a Black
Studies Department, a Puerto Rican Studies Department, and an Asian Studies
Department. So there was a lot that was accomplished and that this administration
did in fact see through. Other cities throughout the country also started to see the
wisdom of that process and started to create higher education opportunity programs,
all of which stemmed from that particular activity that we did in 1969.
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We didn’t want Open Admissions. I think it was undermining when
they threw open the door and let anybody come in. For five to ten years after that,
all I heard was that the quality of City College went bad. I ended up getting my
master’s, went back to City College as a counselor in the SEEK program.
Because, you know, every one of us that was there felt that we were there for a
purpose, and we wanted to come back to our community and help out.
What impact did the City College takeover have on you as individuals?
It had tremendous impact. I utilize some of the tactics in law right now.
I used it when I went to jail. [Eduardo was charged with possession of explosives
with intent to use and served three years in jail.] I used some of the tactics that
we used at City College at Comstack Prison, to change that prison. By the time
I served my time, that prison had totally changed and had implemented programs
for Puerto Ricans in there.
I think for me it really fortified who I was and what I was going to do
next. I went on to do a master’s also. Fernando went back to SEEK. By then we
were married a couple of years. And we came to this community, Perth Amboy,
New Jersey, which was slowly gaining in the number of Puerto Ricans who had
been here since the ‘50s. And of course the educational system had no teachers,
no principals, no counselors of Puerto Rican or Latino or minority background.
There was one Black woman counselor when I came on to my job. But my job
here in Perth Amboy high school, where I presently work, was a struggle. I had
to bring the community into the Board of Ed meeting and demand that I had the
credentials, that I had a master’s degree, in order to be hired. I was happy to have
all of the skills that I had in organizing the community, negotiating. All of the
things that we learned, that we rehearsed during the take over. These are skills that
we’re all using today. I was the first Puerto Rican guidance counselor to be hired at
my high school. And you know, happily I can say that my mission then was to come
back to community, and to give back to the Puerto Rican community primarily,
but to the community as a whole, my skills. I came back!
Could you say how the City College [takeover] helped you in your own
formation as a Puerto Rican?
My family has been here fifty-one years, coming from San Sebastian,
Puerto Rico. And we were nine children; my older brothers and sisters, who would
grow up in the early ‘60s, they had the pressure to assimilate, not only anglicizing
their names but also their attitudes. They felt the need to fit in. They felt the need
that we don’t want to be singled out, you know. We want to be like everybody else.
We don’t want to make any noise. We’re just going to be good and do what you’re
supposed to do and follow that American dream, you know. By the time it came to
me and Migdalia, we said, “We don’t want to sell out our language. We don’t want
to stop being Obdulia. We don’t want to stop speaking Spanish.” We used to say,
“I don’t want to be melted into any pot.” I want to be there with my own
my own flavor. Be who I am, you know. Have my children become who they are.
Be proud of that and still be here and still have rights.
I don’t think they had the option. I think that that’s what City College
meant to us. It was important that we had the option. We had a family of brothers
and sisters that were very poor. We always thought that we needed to help and to
be part of that community, and we never wanted to let go of it. And at City College
those two things, identity and purpose, came together. But then you meet other
people, and you realize that yeah, this is purpose, this is right, this is the way to be
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in the world. Because I was, I was proud of who I was. I was articulate,
and I wouldn’t sell out. I think that City College gave me that sense of who
I was and gave me the strength to present it to the world.
I came to do my master’s in New Jersey, discovered that there were
Puerto Ricans here, too, in New Jersey. My wife and I just took over the same
fight we had at City College, you know. Within a couple of months that I came
to this community [Perth Amboy, New Jersey] I was a member of the Board of
Education. I ran for City Council. So I have kind of put my life to dedicating and
helping other Hispanics, and struggling concerning the issues in this community.
And I think we’re all doing that. Everyone that I know who participated in those
takeovers are still fighting that struggle.
The takeover at City College impacted me in so many ways. It was a
culminating moment in my life. My working life has been involved with education,
as a counselor, as a representative of city government in New York. I would
represent and bring information about what the City was doing to the local
communities. And bring that info, what the local communities whatever they
said, which sometimes wasn’t said in the nicest way, back to my bosses and let
them know exactly what was going on. I’ve been involved with the creation of
community schools, the development of local communities to support education.
I’m now teaching Spanish. It’s all been going back to that key element of
education. So it’s made me who I am.
Aspira, the premiere Puerto Rican/Latino youth leadership organization was
organized in 1961 under the auspices of the Puerto Rican Forum. In 1968, through a Ford
Foundation grant, Aspira opened chapters in five states and Puerto Rico. Since that time,
thousands of Puerto Rican leaders have emerged from this organization founded by Dr.
Antonia Pantoja, Manny Diaz, Frank Bonilla, Judge John Caro, Josephine Nieves, and
others from within the Puerto Rican community.
Manhattanville College was established in 1841 on Manhattan’s Lower East Side as the
Academy of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic boarding school for girls. In March of 1917, 76 years
after its founding as an academy, Manhattanville was chartered as a college by the New York
State Board of Regents, empowering it to grant both undergraduate and graduate degrees.
ROTC—Reserve Officer’s Training Corp (Army)—is an elective curriculum course
of study that prepares students to serve in the Army of the United States as an officer.
During the late 1960s, recruiters were driven from many campuses nationwide.
Chicago Convention—the 1968 National Democratic Convention held in Chicago
that televised thousands of students and “peace’ activists being beaten by then Mayor
Daley’s police department.
PRISA—Puerto Ricans Involved in Student Action, the first Puerto Rican student
club at CCNY.
These colleges are all part of the City University of New York post-secondary
educational system that was, at the time of the CCNY takeover, tuition-free.
Iris Morales was a City College student leader in the pre-baccelaureate program and
a member of PRISA who went on to join the Young Lords Organization, a revolutionary
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Puerto Rican political organization advocating for the independence of Puerto Rico and
democratic rights in the United States. Ms. Morales is an educator, lawyer, and filmmaker
and currently heads up the prestigious Union Square Awards for activists in New York City.
Needle Park was the name given to a small stretch of park located on 72nd Street and
Broadway, where heroin addicts would congregate during the height of the heroin epidemic
in New York City. In 1971, the park was immortalized in Jerry Schatzberg’s
Panic in Needle
, a dramatic film starring Al Pacino and featuring Puerto Rican actor Raul Julia.
In 1968, Mayor John Lindsay, reacting to the publication of woefully low reading and
math scores in the NYC public school system, organized the Bundy Panel, headed by
McGeorge Bundy, a former national security advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson
and later President of the Ford Foundation. The Bundy Panel, on which Dr. Antonia
Pantoja served as the lone Puerto Rican, made recommendations that led to the 1969
decentralization law in New York, altering the public school system. Decentralization
was in direct opposition to the “community control” advocates of the 1960s.
H. Rap Brown was at one time head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee, a leading organization of the civil rights era. He later joined the Black
Panther Party, a revolutionary African American political organization. After many
skirmishes with the police and jail time, he converted to Islam, changed his name to
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and was imprisoned in 2000 for resisting arrest.
Gilberto Gerena Valentín was a labor organizer, a founder of the Congreso del Pueblo,
an umbrella organization for the numerous home town clubs that sprouted up during
the largest migration of the Puerto Rican community in the post-World War II period.
He was also one of the founders of the Puerto Rican Day Parade and became a City
Councilman. He lives in Lares, Puerto Rico, and continues his writing and organizing.
United Bronx Parents was a community-based Puerto Rican organization headed
up by Evelina López Antonetty, advocating for educational changes in the school sytem.
They initiated the first bilingual school in the Northeast, P.S. 25, and supported the rise
of Congressman José Serrano of the Bronx.
Charlie Palmieri—brother of well-known Latin Jazz great, Eddie Palmieri.
Mr. Palmieri, a well-known piano player, arranger, and band leader, was a pioneer of the
Latin music known as salsa. At one time, he was the bandleader of the Jack Paar show,
one of the pioneers of late night talk shows.
Dr. Buell Gallagher was City College’s President from 1952 until May 1969. After the
1969 takeover, he resigned. City College was the most prestigious of the City University
of New York colleges, featuring eleven Nobel Prize winners.
Kent State, located in Kent, Ohio. On May 4, 1970, hundreds of students protesting
the bombing of Cambodia, an expansion of the Vietnam War, were fired upon by
National Guardsmen, who wounded thirteen and killed four students, all unarmed.
Kent State later became a rallying cry for antimilitary sentiment.
Kathleen Cleaver was the first woman to become a part of the Black Panther Party’s
decision-making body, the Central Committee. She was a major voice in the Black
Liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Queen Mother Audley E. Moore was an extraordinary civil rights and black
nationalist leader in Harlem.
Julio Rosado, community control activist in the Lower East Side of New York,
organized the Community News Service during the early ‘70s.
Badillo, Biaggi, Procaccino. Herman Badillo was a Puerto Rican mayoral candidate.
Mario Biaggi served in Congress from 1969 to 1988, and Mario Procaccino was a former
Municipal court judge. They all ran unsuccessfully against John Lindsay.
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