Charting New Pathways in the Study of Puerto Ricans

President’s Remarks Delivered at the Puerto Rican Studies Association Conference in Denver, Colorado, October 2014

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By: Dr. Arlene Torres, President-Elect

When my colleagues asked me to make Presidential remarks, I agreed to do so, albeit with some hesitancy, as I see my role as one who listens, reads, and finds creative ways to advance the scholarly efforts of the association in collaboration with elected members of the council and the broader membership. My goal here today is not to set an agenda for PRSA. Instead, what I propose to do today is to ask us to consider how we might link the concerns of multiple generations within and across and beyond the Puerto Rican Diaspora in ways that exposes the range of inquietudes and advancements in the transdisciplinary field of Puerto Rican studies.

I am in some ways betrayed and advantaged by my anthropological training because I, like you, am concerned with the social processes over the long dureé that constitute and are constitutive of culture. As such I move back in forth in time and space to make sense of everyday life.

I am drawn to the varied perspectives and concerns evoked in the online publications, La Respuesta out of Chi’town, Centro Voices out of New York, 80 grados out of Puerto Rico, in conversation with Diálogo, the Centro Journal, Latino Studies, among other interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary publications that are informed by an intellectual and political commitment to excavating and advancing an understanding of race, class, gender, sexuality, and coloniality. As a community, we locate culture and forms of representation as key sites of struggle, resistance, and transformation. Concerns of this sort were also found in the pages of the Journal of Negro History, the Revista Chicano-Riqueña of days past and in the 21st century pages of Souls. I dare say this web of signification must also inform our writing, reading and analysis of Puerto Rican art, poetry, short stories, novels, historical texts, ethnographies, films, and so on that document the Boricua Diaspora. We must read widely, to develop sound research projects, but as my mother used to say to me as a child, “no puedes leer a loco, tienes que leer detenidamete y con proposito.” [“You can’t just read like crazy, you have to read carefully and with a sense of purpose.”] I must admit, I still read like crazy, but then again, when I’m drawn to something in particular, I listen and re-read with that sense of purpose to tease out the day-to-day sensibilities and new forms of knowledge, the inquietudes invoked, that advance our understanding of the Puerto Rican experience and also raise new questions for future inquiry. As a field, this is precisely the kind of labor, we are and must continue to be engaged in without losing sight of the people, the interlocutors, that make and giving meaning to our endeavors.

I share Xavi Burgos Peña’s “Diaspora Dreams.” “I dreamed of a Boricua Diaspora seen anew – internally and externally – and a renewed process of catharsis taking shape; of a diaspora unsilenced. La Respuesta magazine is a project to bring life to such a dream”  (June 9, 2013). As an association of scholarly activists we shed light on that “Boricuascape,” across space and time. And yet, I often wonder about the accessibility of our work, even in the age of the Internet and access to libraries and publications located the world over.

Sara Awartani’s recent contribution to La Respuesta (June 11, 2014), on forced assimilation and reclaimed identity comes to mind. Awartani, a Puerto Rican-Palestinian young woman at the University of Florida recollects how her pronunciation of La Casita prompted a young man to chastise and shame her by saying, “You sound American.” She says,

“In the same way customers and colleagues channeled my mother toward fitting into a neatly shaped “box” of American identity, pressuring her to hide away the noticeable markers of Puerto Rico intertwined in her very being, the young man asking me to repeat “La Casita” denied my identity. Americanization had come full circle; a member of my own historically contiguous community reinforced it.

The ability to replicate language as a marker of shame, as the boundary of inclusivity, as a process of Othering, shaped me irrevocably. Without the fluency of a native language, some may never consider me as part of the Puerto Rican nation or the Latin@ community in the United States. But what I do know is that my “gringo accent” demanded I find an alternative source of affirmation.”

She found those sources of affirmation in various social spaces beyond the confines of La Casita, including the Institute of Black Culture where she grappled with the pervasive raced and classed inequities in Gainesville, Florida and beyond. And, she made sense of her pain and sense of isolation via sustained research and study as a doctoral student at American Studies at George Washington University.

It pained me to read it. I read it again and again and again. As I reflected on it, the essay invoked, Tato Laviera’s AmeRícan, the intersectional analyses of gender, race, class in the work of Ana Yolanda Ramos-Zayas, Street Therapists: Race, Affect, and Neoliberal Personhood in Latino Newark, the anthrolinguistic scholarship of Ana Celia Zentella, and Jorge Schmidt’s The Politics of English in Puerto Rico’s Public Schools. Héctor Meléndez’ essay, Democratizar el pensar teórico recently published in 80 grados, (September 5, 2014) also provided fodder for thought.

To think theoretically is to ask why. To read the self in relation to another not only enhances our mental health, it also enhances the social fabric that constitutes seemingly disparate Boricuascapes. And this, I argue is precisely the kind of arduous task Awartani set for herself and in many ways asks us to do for ourselves and for others who encounter the field of Puerto Rican Studies.

A host of other theorists and writers will come to mind as each of you read, listen, and view work, art produced by and about the Puerto Rican experience.

Take, for example, Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last. Phoebe Hoban in a New York Times review states, Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue” is that rare and rewarding thing: a theater work that succeeds on every level, while creating something new. The playwright, Quiara Alegría Hudes combines a lyrical ear with a sophisticated sense of structure to trace the legacy of war through three generations of a Puerto Rican family” (NYT February 7, 2006). In Water by the Spoonful, we learn more about Elliott, familia, and the trauma of death and life in a local Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philadelphia that is well ensconced in cyberspace. The last of the trilogy, Marisel Moreno notes, “is a true gem of U.S. Puerto Rican and Latino/a theatre.  The play celebrates Puerto Rican cultural traditions without glorifying the livelihoods of these communities in the poor barrios of U.S. cities. More than that, it is a play that promotes awareness about the devastating effects of war—at a personal, familial, and universal level—on those who fight for either side.”

My point here is that we need to make interlaced readings and experiences accessible to one another in a manner that reveals something about our commitments, passions, and desires.

Once again to quote my colleague Moreno, “It isn’t a secret that literature, as Junot Díaz has said, is something that allows us to be “more human.” This is why I consider literature to be one of the best instruments to promote social transformation. We can spend an entire semester trying to explain to our students the complexity of the process of migration, but reading the works of Chicano poets Luis Rodríguez y Francisco X. Alarcón, or the poems of Puerto Rican Martín Espada, allows them to gain a deeper understanding of what migration means….We can try to explain the toll that racism and prejudice can take on individuals, families, and societies, but it suffices to read Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets to gain a better understanding of these societal problems.” (La Repuesta October 7, 2014)

This conference is a testament to that labor. As I read abstracts, panel and paper titles, I applauded your scholarly and creative interventions in the social sciences, arts, humanities, and media studies. This is a space where we can engage and critique one another. We can lift each other up over the course of the next few days and develop relationships to allow us to work across borders to further enhance the mission of the Puerto Rican Studies Association and the broader society.

I have the distinct privilege of working in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College at the City University of New York. Located in la gran manzana with students of African American, Caribbean, and Latin American descent, I have to work across ill conceived borders to think about the Puerto Rican experience not in isolation, but relationally. I have to draw on our understanding of intraLatino, interLatino and ethnoracial relations that reflect the broad range of experiences of our students, their kin, and the multi-layered communities they create. I must and I do take seriously the need to engage with Mérida Rúa’s grounded identidad in Puerto Rican Chicago. She notes,

Identidad, complex and fluid, needs to be recognized and explored as ‘grounded,’ as rooted in both time and place, and as manifest in everyday exchanges with people within and beyond one’s own ethnoracial groups. The second largest population concentration of Puerto Ricans at the time of [her study], Chicago’s Puerto Ricans have continually constructed, restructured, and transformed place through discourses and experiences of rejection and belonging, despair and hope, claiming the city even as they sought to negotiate and honor their own distinct identity.” (Rúa 2012: xv).

Burgos Peña, Awartani, Rúa, Alegría Hudes, Moreno and their interlocutors lay claim to their comunidad and their puertorriqueñidad. By doing so, they eloquently remind me to work with you and with the students of Puerto Rican culture as President of the Puerto Rican Studies Association to look to the past and to chart new pathways to advance our understanding of puertorriqueñidades in Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Hartford, Louisiana, Newark, Orlando, Philadelphia, New York, and of the Puerto Rican archipelago—in space and through time.

I look forward to the challenges and the possibilities each of you engender via your scholarship in thought and action. Muchas Gracias.

____________________

Arlene Torres, Ph.D. is the Director of the Chancellor’s Latino Faculty Initiative in Academic Affairs at CUNY, a tenured Associate Professor in the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies at Hunter College, and Vice-President/President-Elect of the Puerto Rican Studies Association.

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The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by La Respuesta magazine. We encourage dialogue, debate, and learning in order to forge stronger, healthier Boricua communities and to strengthen alliances across social difference.