“The Bronx is Burning” is a notorious phrase coined by sports journalist Howard Cosell when landlord arson plagued the city’s most marginalized communities. In fact, during the 1970s, the South Bronx seemed to be having a recurrence of a ‘dog day afternoon,’ where residents were continuously suffering from the city’s economic collapse. In the midst of all their problems there also existed the threat of losing a hard fought for institution, Hostos Community College. In response, residents came together to reclaim their right to community-based higher education by mobilizing a protest movement in the streets of the South Bronx. In the end, through the power of the people, Hostos’ doors remain open to this day.
To tell this nearly forgotten story, Puerto Rican activist Félix Romero is developing a documentary, titled: Hostos, The Struggle, The Victory. La Respuesta magazine had the chance to talk with Romero about the project and how his personal life inspired him to do so. Here is what he had to say:
FR: I grew up all over N.Y.C…the five boroughs… I was born in Río Piedras, Puerto Rico but came here when I was a baby. My mother was a single mom with three kids; I was the youngest. I was a wild kid who was into everything, especially music. As early as five years I was dancing. I had an aunt, Faita Reyes-Romero, who lived in the Bronx, Monterey Ave., North of the 3rd Ave. El trains. It was there that I noticed subtle cultural differences from El Barrio where I lived. The people were newer arrivals, spoke more Spanish and had thicker accents. Back then, anything from south of Fordham Rd was considered south Bronx… I was exposed to Típico Tríos, Jíbaro, Bomba and Plena music. Of course there was always the Teatro Puerto Rico… I would dance and play at house parties and political social clubs for tips… They would have Domino tournaments and plenty of debates or arguments about the injustices and lack of services for Latinos in the communities. Most of the clubs were involved politically.
GJM: In what ways have you been a part of the South Bronx’s development as a community?
FR: In 1966 my life changed radically when, performing in the Streets in Southern Blvd., I met “Titi,” Dr. Evelina Antonetty, who took me under wing, introduced me to important people, and gave me the concept of utilizing the performing arts as a vehicle for organizing, informing and empowering the community. We did comedy and drama skits about socially relevant issues and “típico” folk dance and music. She was on top of everything that moved politically in the Bronx… Especially with her United Bronx Parents organization, she mobilized people all over the South Bronx… I was involved in many political campaigns [such as for] John Lindsey, Hermán Badillo, Robert García, Seymour (Sy) Posner, Gerena Valentín and Ramón Jiménez.
GJM: What inspired you to do a documentary film about Hostos Community College and the struggle to sustain it? Why aren’t these struggles common knowledge and part of the historiography of activism in the late 20th century?
FR: I met Ramón Jiménez [who is currently running for New York State Attorney General], a professor at Hostos, through my company “Teatro Otra Cosa” performing at Hostos. We quickly hit it off because he was very engaging, dynamic, and articulate. He embodied everything that I felt was important in a community leader. At the time, 1975-’76, Hostos was being slated for closure, but he orchestrated a coalition of diverse community members to mobilize to save this one building, a bi-lingual, bi-cultural college, and hospitals that served our disenfranchised communities, like Gouverneur Hospital. It was awe inspiring because most of the driving leaders of this coalition had never mobilized for anything before this.
As to why I’m doing this documentary; it’s to pay tribute to the many people that came together to overcome this almost insurmountable adversary, the Emergency Financial Control Board.
GJM: Why was it crucial to keep Hostos Community College from closing during the late 1970s?
FR: It was the shining beacon of hope for a community to better the circumstances for their lives. You had ex-prisoners, veterans, new immigrants, welfare single mothers, dropouts and in their native language get the tools for self-determination through education.
GJM: Why was it important for the people of the South Bronx to have bilingual education and culturally relevant curriculum specifically at the college level?
FR: It is hard for people who have all the cards stacked against them, especially with a language limitation, to assimilate into a culture without access to not only a basic education but an opportunity to gain higher educational rewards. So a bi-lingual, bi-cultural college allows the individual to receive their basic information in a language that they can feel comfortable with in a cultural environment that makes them feel good about who they and what they have to contribute to society.
GJM: Who was part of the movement to keep the community college open? Were there any significant or notable individuals?
FR: Dr. Evelina Antonetty, Andrew Vachass, Petri Byrd, Seymour (Sy) Posner, José Serrano, Gerena Valentín, Father John Luce, Robert García, Ramón Jim´´nez, Prof. Gerald Meyer, Wally Edgecomb, Vicente Alba-Panama, Prof. Víctor Vázquez, Félix Vega Pe˜˜a, Efraín Quintana, Nilsa Saniel, Martin Peña, Fernando Ponce Laspina… and the list of the real heroes, the community!
GJM: How are you producing the narrative of this documentary? Through archival footage, interviews?
FR: All of it, interviews, footage, photos voiceovers, etc.
GJM: Who else is part of the production of this documentary film? How is the South Bronx community, organizations, leaders, etc. engaged in this project?
FR: Ramón Jiménez and I are the Producers… We have original music by Nelson Sánchez and Banda Chez; I did the opening Rap.
GJM: What do you expect to achieve after successfully funding your film project? What kinds of reactions do you expect?
FR: This project has been a long time in the making and we have an opportunity to finally complete it. First let me say that this is intended to be a documentary for commercial release and it can a learning tool for schools, libraries and organizations’ discussion about the subject of empowerment, organizing, leadership, and the power of one. We intend to make this documentary with an accompanying guide booklet with teacher discussion notes, direction and student Study Guide. It will be 55 minutes long so that it can be easily programmed for television. Most importantly, it is to pay tribute to a community that would not give up their college.
You can contact Director Felix Romero and help contribute to his documentary film at gofundme. You also have the chance, on September 19, 2014, to see a dance tribute at Hostos cafeteria honoring Puerto Rican advocate Ramón Jiménez for his notable work at Hostos Community College. For more info and tickets call: 917-769-4646.
Here is a sneak peek of the trailer: “Hostos, The Struggle, The Victory”.