Puerto Rican Elis: A 35-year history

With her red hair and freckles, Elise Brau ’08 surprises many Yalies when she tells them she is Puerto Rican.

“I look like an American kid,” she said.

Hailing from San Juan, Brau is one member of the small group of Puerto Rican Yalies who grew up on the island.

Students and alumni who attended last week’s 35th anniversary celebrations for Despierta Boricua, the Puerto Rican undergraduate student organization, used the occasion to reflect on the significant growth in size and diversity in their community since the first Puerto Rican students arrived on campus in the middle of the 20th century, students said.

While several current members and alumni of DB said differences within the Puerto Rican community are often embraced as ways to spark dialogue about culture, others said the differences can divide groups within the larger community. But many said the past 35 years have seen efforts to bridge the Yale and New Haven Puerto Rican communities and to spread the message of Latino unity.

Coming to Yale

The handful of Puerto Rican students who came to Yale in the late 1960s were faced with the challenge of establishing a presence on a campus heavily dominated by white males.

In 1971, the Puerto Rican community saw a surge in its numbers with the arrival of three students from the mainland and four who had been born and raised on the island — together these students formed the largest group of Puerto Ricans to come to Yale up to that point. The students, many of whom were the first members of their families to attend college, began calling on the admissions office to bring more Puerto Ricans to campus and petitioning the University for a more visible display of administrative support.

One of the students, Eduardo Padro ’75, who is currently a New York State Supreme Court Justice, said he felt that while the administration had created systems to support other minorities — including African American, Asian American and Chicano students — it was slow in identifying the particular needs of the growing Puerto Rican community.

“When it came to Puerto Rican students, Yale lagged behind,” he said. “We eventually had a falling out with the establishment.”

Left to rely on themselves, students generated a roster of Puerto Rican students at the University by flipping through printed Yale facebooks in search of Puerto Rican-sounding surnames and by knocking on doors to solicit interest in forming a student cultural group, Director of the Latino and Native American Cultural Centers Rosalinda Garcia said. In addition to requesting yearly meetings with Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr., the students pressured the administration to create a two week orientation program to help incoming Puerto Rican freshman acclimate themselves to Yale academics. The program served as a precursor to the Cultural Connections preorientation program.

“We were doing most of this on our own,” Padros said. “It was a lot for us to handle.”

During this time, students were working to forge ties to the approximately 12,000 Puerto Ricans living in New Haven through visitation and volunteer work. The New Haven Puerto Rican community provided much needed kinship and advice, alumni said.

In 1972, Padro and his peers established Despierta Boricua as the Yale Puerto Rican student organization just three years after Chicanos at Yale — now named MEChA, for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan — became the first student Chicano organization in the Ivy League. “Despierta Boricua” translates to “Wake up, Puerto Rican,” and the group was originally intended to be a politically active group. At the time, about half of the campus’s 75 Puerto Rican undergraduates belonged to DB.

But struggles persisted for Puerto Rican students, as the newly formed group fought for many years to secure a suitable meeting space and an official advocate within the administration. After rallying for a facility, DB was finally able to claim three small rooms in the basement of Durfee Hall as its home, but Padro said the group was not pleased to be planted in the small basement office while other student groups resided in “beautiful buildings.”

After several heated letters were sent to President Brewster, DB finally obtained their current home at 301 Crown St. in 1977. The Chicano student group concurrently called on the administration for an appropriate meeting space and in the fall of 1980 obtained a space at 295 Crown St., which they shared with the Asian American student group.

For nearly three decades, DB and the Chicano student group operated independently of one another, each with its own cultural center and director.

Latino unity

But the 1990s ushered in a period of increasing immigration from countries such as the Dominican Republic that did not traditionally send immigrants to the United States.

Jorge Torres ’97, a former chair of DB and current New York attorney, said the Latino student body was no longer strictly Puerto Rican and Mexican when he arrived at Yale.

“It was the end of one era at Yale where people would identify according to narrow sub-ethnicities and started to identify as Latinos,” he said.

Garcia said Latino students realized that a number of Latino students did not identify with the Puerto Rican or Chicano communities and felt marginalized because “they did not feel comfortable entering either cultural center.” The students also found that their common goals could be better achieved if they merged into one body, she said.

The Puerto Rican and Chicano groups submitted a nine-page proposal to Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead in the fall of 1999 requesting that the University officially recognize their union and implement the necessary administrative changes. The proposal cited improving “interaction and communication between the students and the Latino community” and the potentially “increased appeal to prospective students” as some reasons for the union.

Brodhead approved the proposal the following spring and announced that the two cultural centers would merge into one Latino Cultural Center and be housed at the 301 Crown St. facility. Brodhead also noted in a message to Latino students that the Puerto Rican and Chicano deanships would be combined into one Director of the Latino and Native American Cultural Centers, a position that would be held by the then-director of the Chicano Student Cultural Center Richard Chavolla.

Although some students voiced concern that these changes would lead to a loss of identity within the Latino community, Torres said, most agreed that they should acknowledge and celebrate their shared Latin American heritage.

“It was a little disarming back then,” Torres said. “But students today probably can’t conceive of a time when there were two separate communities.”

Healing Rifts

Members of the Yale Puerto Rican community said unresolved tensions between students from the island proper and students from the mainland have traditionally obstructed the community’s efforts to maintain a strong, unified presence on campus.

“They came as elites from a separate place, and we came as American minorities,” Padro said of students from the island and those from the mainland.

The historical divide between middle-to-upper class private-schooled island students and stateside students from the inner city have carried over to the present day and still cause some estrangement, some current students said.

“The experiences of people who grew up in Puerto Rico and New York are different on many levels,” Torres said. “People don’t shed 17 years of life experiences when they come to Yale, they bring all that with them.”

DB was founded primarily by stateside students, and the cultural center in its early years served as a gathering place for students from the mainland, Torres said.

Former DB chair Edgardo Ramos ’82, who also works as an attorney in New York, said he would not describe the divide between the two groups as “tension.” Ramos said the isolation of the two groups was brought on by political differences — Puerto Rican students from the mainland tended to be more leftist and in favor of Puerto Rican independence than island students, who he said “had a more nuanced understanding of the various options and difficulties” of Puerto Rico’s political status.

“While I was there we had started to bridge the difference between island and stateside Puerto Ricans,” Ramos said.

But current DB Secretary Militza Pagan ’09 said she thinks the somewhat icy relations only began to thaw in the past five years. Brau said although she does not think the relationship between the two groups is unfriendly, she has encountered some difficulty in persuading her friends from the island to attend cultural events thrown by DB.

DB President Alberto Medina ’07, who also comes from San Juan, said he thinks tensions have dissipated in recent years as Puerto Rico has become more “Americanized” and students from both worlds now have more in common.

“The biggest cultural differences just aren’t there anymore,” he said. “The more contact you have with people, the more you understand and appreciate them.”

Medina said he thinks the organization’s name, which originates from a pro-Puerto Rican independence rallying cry on the island, could, alternatively, discourage more stateside students than island students from participating in cultural activities.

“There’s a whole group of Puerto Ricans that just aren’t interested in participating because they barely see themselves as Puerto Rican to begin with,” he said.

Brau, who has been actively involved with DB but also maintains a circle of friends from the island, said she does not think political differences detract from the Yale experience. She said she believes the shared customs of all Puerto Ricans bring them closer together, especially in a college setting.

“There are differences but there is no hostility,” she said.

Puerto Rican politics

The frequent act of taking a shuttle bus to the airport can be complicated for students who are unsure whether they are flying out of a domestic or international terminal — just one example of the way in which Puerto Rico’s dubious political status complicates life for students at Yale.

Along with the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, Puerto Rico is considered a self-governing commonwealth under the U.S. government. Its “in-between” status is constantly being debated by pro-statehood and pro-independence factions on the island.

DB held a panel discussion on “Unresolved: Puerto Rico’s Political Status” in November to address the ongoing debate, which drew about 40 students and alumni. Students said a consensus was not reached at the discussion because of the diversity of opinions and backgrounds of the attendees.

Brau said although Yale seems to have a good mix of pro-statehood, pro-commonwealth and pro-independence stances, most native residents of Puerto Rico are either pro-statehood or pro-commonwealth.

Medina said although the political debate can seem divisive, it creates a forum for students to express their confusion about a sense of identity and to reach out to others experiencing the same confusion.

“Even though DB doesn’t take a political stance, in a certain way we can’t avoid being political,” he said.

Looking ahead

Despite the student organization’s long history of activism, DB is now facing dwindling membership, students said.

“We’re sort of in a stage where we’re trying to figure out what to do next,” Medina said.

While cultural groups like MEChA have been able to maintain a reputation for being active, DB has encountered difficulty in organizing large-scale events because only seven to eight students turn up at meetings on good days, Medina said. Low numbers have forced the group to eliminate the community outreach officer position on their board — the position responsible for Yale students’ interaction with New Haven Puerto Ricans.

“It’s not a group that you can easily do something to increase participation for,” he said. “If you don’t identify culturally with Puerto Rico, it’s not something that we can change.”

DB members said the group has been “quiet” in recent years. DB’s panlist includes the e-mail addresses of about 100 students, but the majority of those students are not active members and many are not Puerto Rican, officers said. Pagan said the group is concerned about the future of DB’s leadership because the majority of active members are juniors that will relinquish their positions next year. She said DB has not been focusing on recruiting underclassmen because it had been working concertedly on planning the political debate and 35th anniversary celebration.

But the group is hoping to spark a revival of interest and participation in the Puerto Rican student community by holding social events to attract students, and several high school students expressed interest in the group by visiting its station at Bulldog Days Extracurricular Bazaar, Medina said.

Medina said that despite the declining participation in past years, he is not too worried about the viability of the group because the few active members that the community does have will inevitably “step up” when they are needed.

“You never feel like you only have responsibility to the group itself because people within that group become your friends who count on you,” he said. “People will get things done because they don’t want to let their friends down.”

Comments