Bridging Divides, Building Futures: A Puerto Rican Perspective (granito de arena)

From a talk delivered by Agustin Lao-Montes, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, on Saturday June 15th, 2002 at the Planners Network National Conference, “New Visions For Historic Cities: Bridging Divides, Building Futures,” in Holyoke, Massachusetts.

Last weekend, I went to New York to go to the Puerto Rican Parade and to attend the presentation of the memoirs of Antonia Pantojas, the founder of ASPIRA and the National Puerto Rican Coalition. In the parade I found myself greeting and cheering not only the delegation of Ponce and New York but also of Western Massachusetts, my new Puerto Rican home. The last census shows that the fastest growing Puerto Rican communities in the United States are now in Hartford, Connecticut; Springfield and Holyoke, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Southern Florida. The Puerto Rican Airbus, and the everyday travel of people, phone calls, emails, products and political movements between the island and the Puerto Rican diaspora in the US inspired writers to call Puerto Rico a commuter nation.

But many Puerto Ricans here in Holyoke, and in many other American cities, share with many compatriots on the island not only a national identity but also the results of long-term colonialism, including mass unemployment and class and racial discrimination. This is a long and complicated story, but as Carlos Vega, executive director of the Holyoke community development corporation La Nueva Esperanza, began to explain earlier in the conference, a threshold was Operation Bootstrap. Operation Bootstrap was the Puerto Rican industrialization process begun in 1947 to serve as a showcase of the alleged virtues of economic development based on investment by American corporations. Today, the outcomes are clear–a dependent local economy unable to employ more than 40 percent of the workforce.

The same cycle of deindustrialization, economic depression and related social ills–such as drug addiction and internecine violence–can be found in Puerto Rico and in Puerto Rican communities throughout the northeast of the US mainland. This is surely part of the larger context of the local problems discussed at this conference. And it is so because our case is an important example of the failure of the corporate model of economic development that unfortunately is still promoted not only by the Puerto Rican government but also by the local governments of most American cities. In fact, the neoliberal corporate strategy of development was rehearsed in Puerto Rico because as a US colony, the island was open for tax-free US investment.

In his remarks at the conference, Carlos Vega said that the history of Holyoke is of “a clash of two cultures.” But ethnic relations have not been monolithic. Irish and Puerto Ricans, the two main ethnic groups in Holyoke, also have a common history of labor solidarity, diaspora and anti-colonial movements. Pedro Albizu Campos, the key figure of Puerto Rican nationalism, became a leading organizer for Irish liberation from England while he was a student here in New England. Puerto Rican labor leader and socialist organizer, Bernado Vega, testifies in his memoirs about the solidarity between Puerto Rican and Irish workers and trade unionists in early twentieth-century New York. My own research comparing Ireland and Puerto Rico has been welcomed by Irish scholars and activists on the Green Island and I am a promoter of Irish Studies in the Five College Community. If we want to build the broad-based coalition that is needed to confront all the serious problems that we face in Holyoke, it is important to rescue this.

While producing a film on the conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, several people compared Irish Catholics with African Americans because both are treated as second-class citizens. Puerto Ricans are also often defined as second-class citizens because of the linguistic and racial discrimination and class inequalities that many of us experience. As put by W.E.B. DuBois, a native of this Pioneer Valley, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” I will say that it continues in this new millennium but is exacerbated by a capitalist globalization process that is producing huge income inequalities and excluding millions of people from basic means such as employment and housing. As many speakers have said before, Holyoke is no exception.

Conversations about our problems and challenges, as well as the present that we are building and the possible futures we are to imagine and forge together, need to occur at different interrelated scales, from revitalizing a block as Nueva Esperanza is doing, to developing state, national and global agendas. The concept of globalization is often construed as big corporations and banks taking over the world economy, but it can also mean grassroots organizations from different places developing a common program for a better world, what I call “globalization from below.” Last year, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, there was a World Social Forum in which thousands of grassroots organizations from all over the planet got together to discuss alternative strategies of development. We may ask, “What does this have to do with Holyoke?” Well, if the paper mills left Holyoke looking to pay lower wages and if Puerto Ricans came here because there were no jobs in the islands, this should tell us something about how the world works.

The social indicators of Holyoke and particularly of the working-class Puerto Rican/Latino community are well known: high unemployment, a poverty rate around 50 percent, and a school drop-out rate close to 40 percent in an overwhelmingly young population. Very few of our students make it into the University of Massachusetts–the incredibly shrinking public university–thanks to the same corporate, neoliberal model of globalization. It is very important to develop community-based learning and participatory-action research in collaboration with communities, but in our case it is crucial to work together with the Holyoke educational system to channel whatever resources we all have to keep our youth in school and to recruit them with full scholarships into the Five Colleges. Indeed, as a Puerto Rican faculty member, I don’t see that issue simply as a collaboration between university and community, but also as one of the social responsibilities of the Puerto Rican/Latino professional middle-class to work with working-class communities and recast the future.

This is primarily a political question in the good sense of the word, a question of power and empowerment. But again, the issue is what kind of power and who is to be empowered so that the needs and interests of the majority will be represented and addressed. It is not a matter of replacing Barkley and Donahue with Perez and Rivera, but of finding ways in which the community will acquire the political power and socio-economic resources to get what it deserves: good jobs; decent housing; quality education and health care; venues to develop our cultural traditions; and creativity and decision-making influence at all levels of city government. The key to this kind of community empowerment, which is not rhetorical but real and concrete, is organizing. We are fighting against strong global and national trends and our limited local assets are not enough to solve all our problems, but our most powerful tool is in our numbers and our ability to organize for common causes.

An important example close to home is how in Vieques, Puerto Rico, people have united in a single voice to expel the US Navy that is affecting their health, economic development and quality of life. The US Navy is a very powerful contender, but the people of Vieques and Puerto Rico, with solid and consistent organization and international solidarity, pushed even President Bush in his alleged time of war, to promise to take the US Navy out of Vieques by next year.

To close, I want to return to the vision of Antonia Pantojas, arguably the key figure in US Puerto Rican community development in the past century. Her vision changed from one of promoting education for social mobility–reflected in the creation of ASPIRA–to a more grassroots vision of community empowerment that she enacted in PRODUCIR, the last organization she promoted. I find this trajectory, from aspiring to producing, very revealing for our present path as activists, planners and organizers. Antonia Pantojas had the wisdom and vision to realize that the main task is to build collective power–to establish local institutions of grassroots sustainable development at the same time that we build broad-based coalitions at the city, state, national and global levels to produce a more just and humane world.

Organizing is the main weapon of power that we have. A particular vision for community empowerment that was proposed by Jennifer Cannon in a university-community dialogue at the Puerto Rican Studies Association Conference in October, 2000 is to establish a Center for Community Organizing and Political Education here in Holyoke following the example of the Highlander Center in Tennessee. I propose this as a task for university-community partnership between community organizations in Holyoke and the Five Colleges.

To finish, one more thought about Holyoke. If Holyoke can be described as the first US city planned by bankers and corporations, it is our challenge to make it into one of the jewels of grassroots sustainable development and community-led planning.

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