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[ 198 ]
[ 200 ]
after angry students and community supporters demanding
equal access to higher education occupied buildings, the City University of New
York (CUNY) adopted a policy to develop Black and Puerto Rican Studies and
instituted an open admissions policy. This led to a dramatic leap in the numbers of
Puerto Ricans entering the university system, climbing from 5,425 in 1969 to 18,570
by 1975. Puerto Rican faculty also increased. By 1973 there were Puerto Rican Studies
departments in 17 of the 19 campuses, offering 155 courses (Rodríguez Fratecelli
1989). Born out of conflict, these departments were new and valuable institutions
of learning for our communities. Interdisciplinary in nature, the departments
created a wide array of courses in economics, history, culture, and political science
with topic areas such as literature, folklore, family life, community organization,
colonialism, law enforcement and social movements. Although at varying stages of
development, each department had particular strengths with innovative curricula,
and demonstrated dramatic growth despite the limitations in staff and resources
(A Proposal for a Center for Puerto Rican Studies and Research at the University
Graduate Center, Committee for Puerto Rican Studies and Research circa 1972).
It was in the context of developing strategies to strengthen the departments
and the new academic discipline that the idea for a Center for Puerto Rican
Studies arose. Despite the evident success of the early Puerto Rican Studies
departments within CUNY and the excitement they generated among
students and the broader community, the Centro’s founding document states,
“Questions continue to be raised as to whether there is enough about ourselves
that merits scholarly study and whether any of us have any genuine understanding
of what constitutes scholarship…we must continue to seek a place within the
university from which to articulate the social and intellectual problems of our
community while reaffirming the intent to define and control our own intellectual
agenda” (Committee for Puerto Rican Studies 1972?). The document describes
the proposed Center “as a resource for programs at the senior and community
colleges—as a locus for research, for planning, for the preparation and testing of
materials, for training, and for the coordination and communication not readily
available within the capability of the existing departments.” Immediately under
“research and field study” on the list of priorities enumerated in the proposal for
this center was “library and materials development” (Committee for Puerto Rican
Studies 1972?). The Centro was conceived as a support to the departments—not as
a competitor—to provide an undergirding of sound research.
Organizing a repository and providing library resources in Puerto Rican studies
was an original and principal goal of the Centro’s founders. In fact, a library and
materials development committee was part of the early Centro structure; its job
was to set priorities and guide the growth of the library. A memo dated May 25,
1973 states that “among the first tasks to be undertaken …is the mounting of a
research library and data archive on Puerto Rican affairs. This facility should begin
to provide significant services to students and scholars in the course of the fall,
1974 semester” (Bonilla 1973). The plans included a reading room in the Centro’s
new quarters at 500 Fifth Avenue, and collecting and developing materials in
the research areas that had been defined for Centro work. While the original
proposal discussed key areas to be addressed, such as “socio-economic and political
problems, studies in the arts and humanities, especially poetry and theater,”
the research agenda was actually developed once the Centro was operational.
IN 1969,
[ 201 ]
In 1974, La Conferencia de Historiografia, sponsored by the Centro, brought
together scholars, researchers and community activists from the U.S. and Puerto
Rico to participate in intense culture and history workshops. Two volumes based
on this conference’s deliberations,
El cuaderno de migracíon
El cuaderno de cultura
were published by the Centro in 1975, and it was here that the Centro’s research
agenda was more fully defined. Various task forces or research teams
were organized to carry out this agenda. They consisted of:
Puerto Rican Studies (later renamed the Higher Education Task Force)
History and Documentation (later renamed History and Migration)
Language Policy
. Culture Studies (later renamed Culture and Arts Task Force)
Criminal Justice/Prisons
Also in 1974, Centro put out a call for a full-time librarian. Letters went out to
legendary figures such as Pura Belpré and Lillian López,
who pioneered services for
the Spanish-speaking in the New York Public Library. In 1973, Tony Betancourt,
Head of the Acquisitions Division of the Hostos Community College Library,
and the only Puerto Rican librarian in the CUNY system at the time (he was nicknamed
el único
” by the Centro staff), took a leave from Hostos to lay the foundations for the
Centro library, making the first acquisitions, constructing the first bookshelves in the
reading room and helping to set early standards and priorities.
When I arrived at the Centro in 1975, fresh out of Columbia University’s School
of Library Science, a fledging library already existed. In fact, the First Annual
Report of June 1974 boasted “…at present the library occupies a large portion of the
Centro’s space (two reading rooms and the librarian’s office)…the library already
contains one of the most complete collections covering the subject of Puerto Rico
and Puerto Ricans in the city” (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños 1974). This was
at 500 Fifth Avenue, an office building on the corner of 42nd Street where CUNY
rented space for various programs including the newly created Centro de Estudios
Puertorriqueños. The Centro library’s sizable space consisted of two reading rooms
and a librarian’s office, signaling the importance of the program.
Upon graduating, my expectation was to find work in an academic or public
library, where I would have an opportunity to learn all aspects of the job under
the guidance of more experienced people. As it turned out, I became the lone
librarian responsible for this developing library, and I didn’t know where to
begin. It was Lillian López, who had been helping out at Centro in the absence
of a full-time librarian, who recommended me for the job. Fortunately she also
[ 202 ]
Anthropologist Rafael L. Ramírez, then Centro’s Visiting Researcher, addressing a panel at the seminal 1974 Conferencia de
Historiografía. Other participants at the table include (left from Ramírez): Rafael Rodríguez, Milton Pabón and Jalil Sued
Badillo. Photographer unknown. Records of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños,
Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
Jorge Soto’s
El velorio de Oller en Nueva York
(1975) graced the cover of the
Cuaderno de Cultura
. Records of the Centro
de Estudios Puertorriqueños. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY.
[ 203 ]
mentored me through the first months of learning how to be a practicing librarian.
Adjusting to the Centro’s demanding experimental collective structure was another
matter altogether! In addition to learning my job, I was required to participate in
numerous meetings and activities and other Centro work.
As the first annual report indicated, there were already over a thousand volumes
of books, dissertations, and journals. These were mostly titles relating to the history
and culture of Puerto Rico as well as literature in all genres. Additionally, there were
materials about Puerto Ricans in the U.S. written by North American social scientists
and some of the emerging Puerto Rican writers from the U.S. communities.
In 1974 there were fourteen programs and/or departments of Puerto Rican
studies offering a variety of courses. Common to most programs were courses
focused on the history, culture and politics of the Island, as well as courses
addressing the migration experience in the U.S. communities. Sample courses
included topics such as the Puerto Rican family, the Puerto Rican child in the
urban setting, bilingualism and the reading and analysis of an increasingly rich
body of literature produced by U.S. Puerto Ricans. By 1976, the Centro Library
was making substantial progress toward the goal of assembling a core collection
representing the basic works in the main areas of Puerto Rican studies instruction.
There were many obstacles to overcome, among them the lack of models for such
a library and the problems of acquiring Puerto Rican materials.
There were no
specialized bibliographic tools for this area. Trade publications such as
Books in
were only minimally useful because they contained few materials related to
Puerto Rican studies. Puerto Rican newspapers and journals, networking with
vendors and scholars, and Puerto Rican bibliophiles who shared their expertise
became our resources.
Acquisition or collection building in the Centro Library was principally guided by
the research needs of the task forces and the curriculum trends in the departments/
programs of Puerto Rican Studies. For example, to assist the staff analyzing the
political economy of the Puerto Rican migration, a team consisting of myself
and members of the history and documentation task force conducted searches in
repositories in the U.S. and Puerto Rico for the purpose of locating primary sources
and reports about conditions in Puerto Rico that led to the migration of Puerto
Ricans to the U.S. and other territories. Documents were collected on microfilm
from the Library of Congress and the National Archives, from the Franklin Delano
Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park and from the Archivo General in Puerto Rico.
Included were reports and historical records such as letters and diaries.
A retrospective collection of newspapers from Puerto Rico, beginning with
La Gaceta
[ 204 ]
of 1810, was purchased on microfilm. In fact, the majority of the materials in the
collection at this juncture had to do with Puerto Rico’s sociopolitical history,
reflecting the focus of the work in the history and migration task force and the
numerous courses on the history and politics of Puerto Rico.
At the same time, the culture and arts working group was actively engaged in
examining what was old and new in the cultural expression of Puerto Ricans in
New York, particularly as manifested in popular music and art, but also in the
study of Nuyorican literature. The Centro organized a music workshop called
“The Lexington Avenue Express” and a “Feria de expresión puertorriqueña” in East
Harlem. The 1976–77 Annual Report (library section) concludes: “.
..we see the need
this year to focus efforts more directly on rounding out the collection of cultural
materials (literature, music, the arts), now that the historical and social science
sections has a solid foundation” (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños 1977).
An important aspect of the collection policy was embedded in the founding
proposal, which emphasized that “a primary aim of the Center will be to promote
integral analysis of Puerto Rican society that establish clearly the links between
island structures and phenomena and their reciprocal extensions among Puerto
Ricans living in the United States” (Committee for Puerto Rican Studies 1972?).
All information about Puerto Ricans, regardless of place of origin, was to be
included. From the start the Centro’s research looked closely at the situation
on the island of Puerto Rico in order to help interpret the experiences of Puerto
Rican communities in the U.S. The library collection reflected this integral
approach and the growing volume of books, dissertations, journals and newspapers
represented all areas in Puerto Rican studies.
Although an important resource for Centro staff, more students and researchers
from within and outside CUNY were finding their way to the library. Faculty sent
students to do research for their papers and other assignments. Special holdings such
as the dissertations, the microfilm collection and the films were also an attraction.
The Centro’s ground-breaking research and publications also brought attention to
the small but growing collection. Accommodating these users and expanding the
collection in the small quarters at 5th Avenue had become a challenge. The Centro
[ 205 ]
was also growing as a
research institution.
As it turned out,
CUNY had to give
up its rental space at
500 Fifth Avenue,
and a search for a
new home was begun.
With few options to
choose from,
the Centro moved to
John Jay College in
the spring of 1977.
This was an oppressive
and unattractive
basement space,
but the larger quarters
allowed for a more
spacious reading area,
more room for stacks,
storage for audiovisual
materials and room for two microfilm reader printers. Besides the additional space,
there were other advantages to being in a college setting. The John Jay Library staff
was friendly and helpful, and with their support we began to automate our cataloging
process. They helped train me in the use of the OCLC system for cataloging and
shared their cataloging equipment.
This was an important first step for us, as it not
only made our work more efficient, but also made our holdings available for the
first time on a national bibliographic system. Now it was possible to disseminate
information about our holdings to a broader audience.
John Jay also afforded us more access to students, and the expanded space made
it possible to provide library orientations to diverse groups from the community,
as well as students throughout CUNY and beyond. We were quickly becoming
a safe zone for Puerto Rican students, who were in a university environment
that was at best
indifferent and at
worst hostile to their
presence. For many
of the students, the
Centro library was
their first encounter
with a space totally
dedicated to their
culture and history.
Our main activity,
in addition to the
task of making
materials available,
was providing direct
services to students
Nélida Pérez (circa 1980s) at Centro Library, Hunter College. Photographer unknown.
Records of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños,
Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
Shana Poplack (standing left) and Pedro Pedraza (standing right) presenting Centro’s
socio-linguistic research at a Centro openhouse (John Jay College, circa 1978).
Photographer unknown. Records of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. Centro de
Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
[ 206 ]
and working closely to guide them through assignments and library research in
a friendly and non-threatening setting. This was made possible by an expanded
staff. We’d gone beyond the two reading rooms, and now we had also gone
beyond a lone librarian. I was joined by another professional librarian as well as
a trained library assistant.
Up to this point, most of the holdings consisted of secondary sources except for
selected primary sources bought on microfilm from other repositories. There was also
a smattering of ephemera and first-hand sources—things such as flyers, programs,
posters and pamphlets, mostly about Puerto Rican activities in New York City,
which we collected and kept in metal cabinets. As of yet, we had not consciously
committed to gathering primary sources documenting Puerto Rican community history.
In 1982, the Culture and Arts Task Force initiated an oral history project
in an attempt to “capture the undocumented aspects of the migration experience”
and to complement existing and ongoing research on the political economy of
the migration (Benmayor 1989). Together with members of the History Task
Force, they formed the Centro Oral History Committee. The project, titled
“Puerto Ricans in New York: Voices of the Migration,” recorded a series of
life history interviews with
from Brooklyn and with women garment
workers. The testimonies collected from the earliest migrants revealed an
incredibly rich experience and uncovered a history that had barely been glimpsed.
Most significantly, a community eager to tell its story surfaced, and people began
delving into their
and all the places where memories are stored. This was an
important development in the work that was being produced at Centro, and would
also influence the future direction of the library.
Jesús Colón, at the Park Palace Theater (New York, October 1938), speaking to members of the Spanish Section of the
International Workers Organization (IWO) about the Spanish Civil War. Photographer unknown. Jesús Colón Papers.
Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
[ 207 ]
From the work of the Oral History Committee flowed the first donations of
archives to complement the library holdings. Thankfully naïve about the immense
responsibility and the resources required to collect historical records, we enthus-
iastically accepted the donation of the Jesús Colón papers in 1982. The extraordinary
Jesús Colón, a tireless organizer, journalist and writer, was discovered, and we
were led to the treasure trove of papers Colón had left in the care of his friend
Benigno Giboyeaux. They contained materials of all types documenting his life
from the moment he arrived in New York in 1917. Because as an activist and a writer
Colón participated in organization building and in many aspects of community
development, the papers reconstruct a part of community history we hardly knew
and represent an important record of Puerto Rican life from the 1920s through the
1940s, the period in which the bulk of the papers fall. At the time, all we had available
to us about this early
was the intriguing
Memorias de Bernardo Vega
which was filled with references to early organizations, events and individuals.
Here in the Colón Papers was the actual evidence of the creation and existence
of organizations such as la Liga Puerorriqueña e Hispana and La Vanguardia
Puertorriqueña in the form of minutes, bylaws, membership lists, programs, flyers,
correspondence, and photographs among other materials. The first encounters with
New York are described in Colón’s detailed letters to his sweetheart, Concha,
in Puerto Rico. It’s from the Colón Papers that we learn about Puerto Rican participation
in organizations such as the Communist Party, the International Workers’ Order, el
Club Cubano Inter-Americano, and el Club Obrero Español; we also see how Puerto
Ricans figured in New York City politics. The significance of the Colón Papers for
research on the early Puerto Rican communities cannot be exaggerated.
Also in the course of the Oral History Project another “pionero” came to light.
He was an elderly Cuban gentleman named Justo Ambrosio Martí, a former
merchant marine and photographer who through his images captured more than
two decades of Puerto Rican and Latino life in New York City. Don Justo A.
Martí had no family and adopted us as his heirs and declared us the guardians of
his legacy, which consisted of thousands of photographic prints and negatives.
Focused on the 1950s and 1960s, Martí’s images covered many topics, among them
family life and rituals such as birthdays, baptisms and weddings (the photos which
most fascinated me because they could have been my family’s celebrations); bodegas;
sports such as baseball, wrestling and boxing; club scenes; performers including a
young Tito Puente at the Palladium; and popular singers like Tito Rodríguez and
Felipe Rodríguez (my father’s
favorite). He also documented
cultural activities such as La
Fiesta de San Juan Bautista and
El Desfile Puertorriqueño at
its beginnings, political events
involving Puerto Rican officials
from New York and Puerto
Rico such as Felisa Rincón
de Gautier and Luis Muñoz
Marín, and many other themes,
all of which brought to life that
period of time when Puerto
Ricans were arriving in New
Justo A. Martí, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y.
(March 1988).
Photograph by Tony Velez.
©Tony Velez. Tony Velez Photographic
Collection. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora. Centro de Estudios
Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
[ 208 ]
Quinteto Jorge Figueroa (1957) and beauty pageant contestants at the Spanish American Master Barbers Association’s event
(December 1, 1957) [from left: Olga Otero, María E. Falcón, Judith Betancourt, Gladys S. Vélez, Carmen Arroyo, Norma
Sánchez]. Photographs by Justo A. Martí. Justo A. Martí Photographic Collection. Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora.
Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
[ 209 ]
York in great numbers. For me, a member of the post-Word War II migration,
and a Puerto Rican raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, this was a transforming
experience because I found myself in Don Justo’s photographs and the stories they
told. The images evoked my own memories and connected me to this rich history.
Now we were introduced to trailblazing individuals whose life stories
were told not only in the oral histories but were also contained in the
cabinets, drawers, trunks and boxes, where they kept their most precious
belongings: photographs, scrapbooks, programs, ticket stubs, letters,
buttons and all those other items that chronicled their activities,
their community participation, as well as their personal and family life.
Confronted with the riches of these collections, we could only imagine
what other precious sources remained untapped, endangered and hidden.
Beyond the production and dissemination of knowledge about our experiences
[ 210 ]
through research and publication, another aspect of our mission at the Centro—
taking ownership of Puerto Rican history by gathering, protecting and making
available for use the sources for its study—was suddenly foregrounded.
In truth, there was no written mission or collection development policy during
this period, apart from the directives in the founding documents. Things evolved
organically and serendipitously. By the mid-1980s it was apparent that we had more
than a supporting role in this complex space called the Centro. We were becoming
increasingly recognized as a vital resource. The Library and Archives was indeed
developing into a special place.
Because we were entrusted with the responsibility of caring for primary sources,
educating myself and the staff to take on this new work was essential. Handling
primary sources requires knowledge and skills that differ substantially from library
practice. While researching institutions in the city that offered archives training,
I learned about the New York University master’s degree program in history and
archival management, where I enrolled to acquire the archival methods necessary
for the care and preservation of our new and future acquisitions.
Meanwhile, we had outgrown our space at John Jay. This time we had the good
fortune to be invited by the forward thinking president of Hunter College, Donna
Shalala, to become part of Hunter. Two new buildings were in the process of
completion and almost ready for occupancy at the Hunter campus at 68th Street and
Lexington Avenue. After negotiating an institutional agreement that was mutually
acceptable, we made preparations to move. Centro research and administrative staff
were to be housed in appropriate office space on the 14th floor of the East Building,
and the library staff and collections were to be housed directly in the Hunter Library,
which occupied nine floors of the East Building. Negotiating space for the library
collections proved to be a complicated exercise. Hunter’s then Chief Librarian was
less than enthusiastic about this arrangement and insisted that we get exactly the
same square footage we had at John Jay. Only reluctantly did he surrender space
located on the 7th floor, which at the outset was inadequate, with almost no room
for staff to process materials, a very small reading area, and little room for growth.
Space would continue to be a contentious issue over the years. In addition to the
amount of square footage, we had to negotiate access to our facility. From the start,
Centro was committed to public access to the library. We did not want to imitate
institutions that limited access to special collections to scholars and researchers with
advanced degrees or other acceptable credentials. In the agreement with Hunter
we insisted on an open-access policy to make our resources available equally to all
communities. In the fall of 1983, the Centro’s tenth anniversary, we completed our
move to Hunter College, where we have been housed ever since.
In the 1980s, the New York State Archives began to take an interest in
New York communities that were inadequately represented in the state’s
historical record. Consequently, the Documentary Heritage Program was
[ 211 ]
created with funding from the state legislature to provide support for records’
programs in areas where there were significant gaps, including what they termed
“underdocumented” communities. In 1989 we applied for and received a small
grant from the Documentary Heritage Program to carry out a survey project.
The project’s objective was to identify records of permanent value in the New
York City Puerto Rican community and to develop a long-range strategy for
collecting, organizing and making them accessible. The funds paid for a part-time
archivist to do the survey.
Because we expected the survey to uncover a wealth of
documents, we questioned our readiness to pursue a project that would inevitably
grow into a full-fledged historical records program. Where were the resources?
Where was the space to house materials properly? How would resources be divided
between the library and this new archival component, especially when we knew full
well that the budget would stay essentially the same?
The responses to the survey reinforced our belief that, regardless of our state of
readiness, the time was ripe to build on what had already been started through the
oral history project. Carrying out this first survey brought us into close contact with
many people who had no idea why we were so anxious to examine and to protect
their old papers and generally no awareness of the significance of their contributions
to Puerto Rican and to New York history. “Why me? I’m not important,” was a
common reaction. This survey and subsequent work in archives has been about
respecting community memory and preserving a more complete and balanced
historical record, about uncovering hidden history, the stories of individuals and
organizations that would have otherwise remained obscure and unsung. Doña
Genoveva de Arteaga, a widely traveled concert pianist and organist and a founder
of the prestigious Puerto Rico Conservatory of Music, was ninety and wheelchair-
bound when we visited her in Washington Heights. She welcomed us enthusiastically
and regaled us with stories as she gathered her papers. When she signed the deed
of gift she said to us “Ahora me puedo morir en paz” (Now I can die in peace).
A remarkable but little recognized woman, she was happy to find a place that
valued her work and promised to protect and make it available to others.
The initial survey inspired the donation of seven collections, and the
information gathered became the foundation for a collection development
plan. In today’s Centro archives, there are 243 collections totaling
approximately 5000 cubic feet. Local community activists such as Petra
Santiago from Loisaida and Petra Allende from East Harlem share space
with figures of national prominence such as the founder of ASPIRA,
Antonia Pantoja. Celebrated patriots and writers like Clemente Soto Vélez
are side by side with elected officials such as Assemblyman Oscar García Rivera,
the first Puerto Rican to be elected to public office. And Puerto Ricans from
the turn of the century agricultural migration to Hawaii, such as Blase Camacho
Souza, find themselves alongside Puerto Ricans from large urban centers,
a part of the post-WWII industrial migrations. The stories of educators, writers,
musicians, labor and civic leaders and public officials can be found here as well
as the stories of thousands of ordinary workers, who came looking for better
opportunities and at some point passed through the doors of the office of the
Migration Division of the Government of Puerto Rico, or came as contract
workers under the auspices of the Puerto Rican Department of Labor.
Moreover, organizational history is well represented in the archives.
Housed in our repository are the records of key organizations such as the
[ 212 ]
Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, ASPIRA, and United Bronx
Parents, which have made invaluable contributions in the areas of civil rights,
education, political participation and numerous other issues of significance to
our communities in the Diaspora. The Records of the Offices of the Government
of Puerto Rico in the United States, which we hold in custody, constitute the
largest collection of Puerto Rican migration documents in the United States.
Convincing the Puerto Rican government to leave these materials in New York
was a long and difficult process. Pressure from a committee consisting of diverse
individuals from the New York area calling itself “El Comite Pro Permanencia de
los Archivos,” along with the intervention of Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez,
eventually resulted in an agreement to transfer custody to the Centro archives of
this immense, rich collection documenting migrant life from 1930 to 1993. It took
over six years of work and more than one million dollars, as well as a staff of three
full-timers and numerous part-time assistants, to organize these records,
which occupy approximately 3,000 cubic feet.
Meeting and interacting with donors is one of the most exciting and fulfilling
aspects of our work. At the same time, obtaining collections is often a laborious and
sometimes extraordinarily complex process. From the first contact with the donor
until the gift agreement is signed, there are many steps in a negotiation that can be
highly sensitive because there are often many emotions involved as well as physical
obstacles. For example, heirs making decisions to donate the papers of a loved one
have great separation anxiety. On one hand they know that placing the materials in
our repository is the best option, but they become concerned over their access
to the collections, and letting go requires a great deal of courage and trust.
From our end it is important that every aspect of the gift agreement is understood
and acceptable, and much care goes into discussing it with all concerned.
Sometimes the donor, instead of being extremely reluctant to let things go, is anxious
to get them out because of an impending move or imminent space needs. The actual
transfer of materials brings out a mixture of emotions on the part of the donor: tears,
last minute doubts and/or relief. From our end, this is frequently a rescue operation
retrieving materials from diverse storage spaces—basements, abandoned apartments,
packed storage rooms. Once the archives arrive at the Centro space, they need to be
cleaned (besides dust there are sometimes creatures dead or living, rusty staples and
clips, melted rubber bands, etc.). Only then can the process of organizing begin.
Arrangement and description is the process of making an archives collection
available to researchers. It is a labor-intensive process that involves both
intellectual and physical work. Personnel trained in archives methods must
determine how to sort and arrange the collection in a way that respects its original
order, faithfully represents the life activities of an individual or the daily work of
[ 213 ]
an organization and is easily accessible to researchers. A guide is prepared where
sufficient description is provided for researchers to understand the significance of
the materials, their value for research, and the history of the organization or the
individual. A list of access points is created to facilitate research, and a container
list describing what is in the boxes and folders is provided. The boxes and the
folders are all numbered for easy retrieval. Today most archives do the guides
or create aids in encoded archival description to facilitate access through the
Internet so that the materials can be searched more effectively and with greater
thoroughness. Forty of our guides will soon be available in that format.
The physical labor involves the initial cleaning and re-housing, carrying out
preservation measures such as copying brittle documents on acid-free paper and
placing photographs in mylar sleeves, sorting and removing duplicates and non-
archival materials, foldering, labeling and boxing. Most of this work is done by
archival assistants, whom we train as well as mentor in the hopes of getting them
interested in the profession.
The cost of organizing collections is high. The archival boxes, folders, etc.
are expensive. Once a collection is processed, preservation microfilming is often
desirable, especially for fragile documents where handling the originals would
further damage them. Currently there is a great demand for and pressure to
digitize collections for access. All of this requires levels of funding that are
beyond our basic budget. Fundraising and seeking outside support for these diverse
tasks became a necessity and is part of what we had to learn here at the Centro.
We have been successful over the years in securing grants from diverse sources
such as the Andrew W. Mellon, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, as well as
from government sources such as the National Endowment for the Humanities,
the National Historical Records and Publications Commission, the New York
Children entering Centro’s library, then located at the 7th floor of Hunter College’s Jacqueline G. Wexler Library (circa
1990). Photographer unknown. Records of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños,
Hunter College, CUNY. Reprinted by permission.
[ 214 ]
State Archives and New York State Education Department. But it is a constant
struggle since funding is given on a project-by-project basis despite the fact the
work of archives is ongoing.
The end result of the training, preparation, proposal writing and negotiations
with donors is a well-organized repository of unique and valuable resources.
The personal papers assembled in these archives of the Diaspora can be mined for
Puerto Rican biography. New heroes and heroines have emerged. The Records
of the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States contain a
wealth of information on migrant history and are a rich resource for genealogy.
There is a whole new body of sources accessible not just to academic researchers
and students, but to a public still in search of its forbears and seeking to fill in
missing pieces in family histories. Among other major resources in the archives is
a significant collection of visual art containing posters, prints and paintings along
with artists’ files and exhibition catalogs. There is a good representation of New
York Puerto Rican art such as that of the Taller Boricua, as well as the work of
Island-based artists such as Rafael Tufiño, among others.
In addition to supporting Puerto Rican studies teaching and scholarship, the Centro
Library and Archives has created links with community groups such as Puerto Rican
genealogical associations, which have come to rely on our collection, and with visual
artists, writers and musicians. In 1985 a number of friends and supporters of
the Centro joined together to create the Friends of the Centro Library.
The bylaws describe their goals: “… to focus public attention on library services
and needs, to stimulate endowments, gifts of books, collections and educational
materials to the library, to promote activities that will foster full community
awareness and appreciation of the library as a center of learning, to promote
closer relations between Puerto Rican and other interested people, to sponsor
educational activities to help promote use” (Friends of the Centro Library 1985?).
Book parties, a concert, small exhibits, and other events were organized by the
group, as well as a membership drive, which brought in some funds to help buy
equipment and supplies. One of the major accomplishments of this group was
the dedication of the library to educator and community activist Evelina López
Antonetty on December 12, 1986.
More than three hundred people came out for
this occasion to honor Evelina and show their support for the Centro Library.
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Although no longer active, the small group of Friends were extremely committed
to promoting the library as a resource for the community and provided an
important link with a diverse community of concerned individuals, making a
significant contribution to the development of the library.
True to its original intent, the Centro Library and Archives has been essential to
the development of Puerto Rican Studies by providing a space and the resources
for theoretical work in Puerto Rican and Latino issues. Scholars from various
disciplines and several generations have used this facility to complete dissertations,
books and articles. Certainly the Library and Archives have influenced the
production of knowledge about Puerto Rican reality and the incorporation of the
diasporic experience into research practice.
Equally as significant, the Centro Library and Archives has impacted on the lives
of generations of students, many of whom have made important self-discoveries in
our reading area, coming in touch for the first time with identity-affirming sources
and getting some nurturance in an otherwise indifferent university environment.
A number of these students have maintained a long association with the Library
through undergraduate school, graduate studies and professional careers.
The Library and Archives staff have mentored and encouraged students to pursue
careers in librarianship and archives, areas where there is a dearth of Latinos.
Another of the Centro Library and Archives’ objectives has been to raise
awareness of the importance of documenting history among creators, custodians
and users of records, and to provide leadership in this area. As a pioneer in
ethnic librarianship and archives, the Centro Library and Archives has been at
the forefront of documentation efforts throughout New York State and in other
regions of the country such as New Jersey, Illinois and California. As archivists and
librarians we have gone beyond our original responsibility, encouraging projects
to document the broader Latino experience. We collaborated with the New York
State Archives to produce a guide to documenting Latino/Hispanic history and
culture in New York State, whose purpose is “to help create a comprehensive,
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equitable historical record of New York’s Latino/Hispanic population…”
(New York State Archives 2002: 2). We have had a role in the creation of the
New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center, housed at Newark Public
Library, which is actively documenting New Jersey’s Puerto Ricans. The Centro served
as a model for the Dominican Studies Institute at City College, where work has started
on preserving the history of the Dominican community in the U.S. And as far away as
California we have supported the California Puerto Rican Historical Society and the
preservation of the records of one of the first Puerto Rican organizations in the U.S.,
the Club Puertorriqueño de San Francisco, founded in 1912.
Through a combination of vision and hard work, the Centro Library and
Archives has progressed from a core collection to a comprehensive research
collection and has been transformed from a local resource to a recognized
national resource. The transformation from a support unit for Centro staff and
Puerto Rican Studies Departments into the major repository for Puerto Rican
diasporic history has been a fascinating journey. Many challenges remain,
not least among them maintaining a level of funding that allows us to continue
to thrive and do high-quality work. At the forefront of current initiatives
is producing information in digital format to provide greater access to our
holdings so as to ensure that our collections are searchable and usable to diverse
audiences, on-site and remotely. At the same time a chief concern has been
the systematic conservation and preservation of our holdings, including paper,
audio and videotapes and film and vinyl recordings. Active collecting in all areas
continues because ours is a rich and complex history, and many gaps remain to
be filled. We have barely scratched the surface; subjects such as gay and lesbian
studies, the arts, business history, and religious practices, among others, are
still inadequately documented. There is still a great need for good community
histories, textbooks for classroom use, for biographies, and for other materials
in these and many areas. The collections of primary resources we have built
are not yet being used to their full potential for scholarly research, in school
curricula at all levels or for public programs. Promoting the diverse resources
we house and encouraging the use of collections for furthering and deepening
existing knowledge in Puerto Rican history and culture is an ongoing part of
our work. There is a wall in the library covered with portraits called “The Faces
of the Migration.” Many of the library surfaces are adorned with images from
the archives—pictures of donors, facsimiles of documents, posters from the art
collection. The small art gallery established for displaying our own holdings and
those of local artists has become an increasingly visible and important exhibit
space. There are traveling exhibits using photos and documents to tell a story—
all products of a creative staff and volunteers that showcase the holdings and the
work that is not always easy to grasp or describe in words.
In 1992 we moved to bigger quarters on the third floor of the Hunter College
library. It didn’t take very long to outgrow that space, so that the Library and
Archives operation is currently spread out among different sites on the Hunter
Campus as well as off-site. Maintaining archives is an enormous task.
Archival materials are labor intensive to organize and preserve and require
a good deal of space for storage, for processing and for reference service.
The Library has also grown, and there is hardly enough shelf space to
accommodate new acquisitions. A solution to the space problem has to be
a top priority for the immediate future.
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Although I never to stay that long, the Centro Library and Archives was under
my charge for thirty years. This has been my life’s work, although I never intended
staying this long. The history of the Library and Archives has not only been shaped
by me, but also by many others throughout the thirty-two years of the Centro’s
existence. This brief essay does not do justice to the long and intricate history
that is so deeply linked to the Centro’s overall development, as well as my own.
Hopefully there will be time at some later date to expand it and analyze it with
more depth. But the great thing is that this is a “living” project that will continue
to unfold through time, making an impact into the future so long as a people’s
need for self-knowledge and for understanding their history and culture remain.
I am grateful to the members of the Centro Library and Archives Staff who read
various versions of this article and provided valuable suggestions: Pedro Juan
Hernández, Jorge Matos, Felix Rivera, Mario H. Ramírez and Marc Zeitschik.
Special thanks to Pedro Juan Hernández for helping to select the images and to
Mario H. Ramírez for his research assistance.
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Pura Belpré began working in the New York Public Library System (NYPL) in the
early 1920s. A writer and folklorist, she published the book
Perez and Martina: A Porto
Rican Folktale
in 1932 and numerous other books of Puerto Rican folklore. Lillian López
worked in NYPL from 1960–1985 and, like Belpré, was a pioneer in creating library
services and programs for Puerto Ricans and other Latinos.
There were also Chicano Studies libraries emerging in this period—a development
that resulted in important collections. Key collections include the Chicano Studies
Library at the University of California Los Angeles, The Mexican-American Collection
at Stanford University and the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives at the
University of California Santa Barbara.
OCLC is a worldwide union catalog with millions of online records.
Amílcar Tirado Avilés, with an MLS from the State University of New York/Albany
and an MA in History from SUNY/Buffalo, was reference librarian until 2000. He made
important contributions in collection development and bibliography throughout his
tenure. Felix A. Rivera, with an associate’s degree in library technology from the Borough
of Manhattan Community College, earned a BA from City College and continues to
work in the library as the film and media librarian.
Nelly Cruz, with an MA in History/Caribbean and Latin American Studies and a
Certificate in Archives Management from New York University, was the first project
archivist. She helped in archival development and processing until 1993. Later she became
the Director of the Archivo General in Puerto Rico.
In addition to various in-house digitization projects, Centro has partnered with
the New York State Archives on “Ventana al pasado”—a bilingual web-based research
collection containing over 3,100 digital images linking Latino-related records in ten New
York State archival repositories—and on “The Electronic Schoolhouse”—a bilingual
educational resource focusing on using historical records in the classroom.
Archivist Pedro Juan Hernández, with an MA in History from the University of
Puerto Rico, is responsible for exhibits and for the creative use of the images from the
Archives on view in many areas of the library. Architect Jose Vidal is a volunteer who
came up with the idea of the Centro Gallery and is the curator of the art exhibits.
Benmayor, Rina. 1989. Culture and the Arts Task Force Retrospective and Current
CENTRO de Estudios Puertorriqueños Bulletin
2(6): 74–6.
Bonilla, Frank. 1973. Memorandum. Records of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños.
Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños. 1974–1977. Annual Reports. Records of the Centro
de Estudios Puertorriqueños.
Chabran, Richard F. 1984. Notes on the History and Future of Major Academic Chicano
Libraries. In Biblio-
Politica: Chicano Perspectives on Library Service in the United
, eds. Francisco Garcia-Ayvens and Richard F. Chabran, 89–103. Berkeley:
University of California.
Committee for Puerto Rican Studies and Research. 1972? A Proposal for a Center for
Puerto Rican Studies and Research at the City University Graduate Center. Ms.
Friends of the Centro Library. 1985? Bylaws. Records of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños.
New York State Archives. 2002.
A Guide to Documenting Latino/Hispanic History and
Culture in New York State
. New York: New York State Archives.
Rodriguez Fratecelli, Carlos. 1989. Higher Education Task Force Puerto Ricans in
CENTRO de Estudios Puertorriqueños Bulletin
2(6): 22–31.
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