Puerto Rican Studies and PRSA
PRSA Commemorates its 20th Anniversary
by Edna Acosta-Belén
Distinguished Service Professor of Latin American,
Caribbean, U.S. Latinoa and Women’s Studies
University at Albany, SUNY
Co-Chair, PRSA 2012 Conference Program
The next PRSA Conference, marking the 20th anniversary of the founding of PRSA, will be held from October 24-28, 2012 at the University at Albany, SUNY. Next year’s meeting, provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on ways in which the field of Puerto Rican Studies has evolved, and on the impact of the scholarship about the Puerto Rican diaspora that has been produced since academic programs and departments were first established in the late 1960s and early 1970s at several US colleges and universities.
Those of us who were involved in the struggles that made Puerto Rican Studies programs possible, as well as in the early years of PRSA, are eager to point out some of the major accomplishments without ignoring the current economic woes and uncertain future of many US higher education institutions, and how the recession may affect what are regarded as non-traditional areas of academic inquiry.
Even though a handful of Puerto Rican Studies programs have achieved a respectable degree of institutionalization and are still around four decades after their inception, many have expanded their scope to be more inclusive of other groups, and added Latino Studies to their original names or merged with Latin American or Caribbean area studies programs. Thus, with the continuing unprecedented growth of the Latino population and the changing demographics of the United States, it is reasonable to assume that there will be a concomitant long-lasting need and demand for our programs.
Most academics would agree that by now, scholarship that addresses the intersectionalities of ethnicity, race, gender, class, sexuality, and other sources of difference, which has been largely promoted by scholars in ethnic, women’s, LGBT studies, and other ground-breaking interdisciplinary areas, has influenced and achieved a considerable level of acceptability within the traditional disciplines. However, faculty involved in these interdisciplinary areas of study also are cognizant that the academic spaces forged for these fields are regarded as contested terrain.
Quite often, old institutional battles recycle themselves, since, basically, the shortsighted and prejudiced view of these fields as “just identity politics” or as a “non-essential” component of a meaningful liberal education still persists. At the same time, this view is counterbalanced by scholars who understand the empowering nature of knowledge in informing social change, and also recognize the importance of producing more accurate scholarship about the often debased or ignored more marginal sectors of society.
Since its inception, scores of scholars, activists, and students have made PRSA a welcoming place for those committed to advancing knowledge about Puerto Ricans, or for those engaged in advocacy or policy work aimed at improving their status in US society.
The Birth of Puerto Rican Studies
PRSA had its Founding Conference in 1992, two and a half decades after the first Puerto Rican Studies program was established at City College, CUNY in 1969, and after the actual field began to be developed primarily by Puerto Ricans living in the United States.
With the support of faculty, students, and members of the Puerto Rican community, the early Puerto Rican Studies programs or departments were established at several colleges of the CUNY system (City College, Brooklyn, Hunter, Queens, Lehman, John Jay) and the SUNY system (Albany, Buffalo). Other institutions that are part of the Rutgers University system (Livingston College, Newark, New Brunswick), along with Fordham University, also were among this early group.
Under the vision and leadership of the late Frank Bonilla, the founding of the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at CUNY in 1973 and the development of its Library and Archives, were major catalysts in the production of new scholarship about the Puerto Rican diaspora that occurred in subsequent decades.
By the time PRSA was founded, there were new generations of Puerto Ricans entering the academy and receiving doctoral degrees; many of whom had benefited from the more inclusive educational opportunities and consciousness-raising of the 1960s and 70s. By the early 1990s, along with the pioneers in the field, they represented a critical mass of Puerto Rican Studies scholars prepared to continue the sustained critique of the shortcomings and biases of previous scholarship, and generate new knowledge about Puerto Ricans.
A new substantive body of “decolonized” knowledge has continued to grow since the founding of PRSA, providing Puerto Rican Studies scholars from many different fields—who, up to that time, had been presenting their work in conferences such as LASA, CSA, ASA, AAS, NAES, NWSA, MLA, OAH, and other professional organizations that preceded PRSA—to also create a space of our own; a space for intellectual learning, debate, creativity, and networking with other specialists, but also for inspiring and mentoring younger scholars and activists.
The full history of the Puerto Rican Studies movement is still waiting to be written and preserved, with many memorable stories from the pioneers in the field that should be told and recorded.
The Founding of PRSA
The planning conference for the creation of PRSA was held at the Marriott Courtyard in White Plains, NY on September 18-20, 1992. It was there where the original By-Laws for PRSA were enacted, candidates for the leadership of the organization were nominated, and plans for the first official conference (held two years later in Waltham, MA), were laid out.
Many of the women pioneers in Puerto Rican Studies, along with a substantial number of younger ones, do not need to be reminded of that unforgettable Women’s Caucus meeting in a hotel room that took place the second day of the planning conference. The main item on the meeting’s agenda was to discuss and assert the importance of women playing an equal role in the leadership of PRSA by nominating and collectively supporting a woman candidate for the first presidency of the organization.
This goal was achieved when Virginia Sánchez Korrol, a prominent scholar in the field who for many years had played a key leadership role in the institutionalization of the Department of Puerto Rican Studies at Brooklyn College, was elected President. Since then, PRSA has continued the tradition of alternating the organization’s presidency between talented and dedicated female and male scholars; a practice stipulated in its original By-Laws.
Most of us are proud of being part of the collective struggles aimed at enhancing the educational and professional opportunities, and the empowerment of the generations of Puerto Ricans that followed ours, as well as contributing to the advancement and transformation of knowledge about the Puerto Rican diaspora that has transpired during the last four decades. There is no better indication of the impact of Puerto Rican Studies on the academy than witnessing the scholarly productivity and stimulating intellectual engagements that take place at PRSA’s biennial conferences.