Puerto Rican Studies at 50: The Past and Future of Ethnic Studies

Tue, October 29, 2019
Puerto Rican Studies at 50: The Past and Future of Ethnic Studies
Yarimar Bonilla delivers keynote address

50 Years In The Making

On Saturday, October 26 over 80 scholars and attendees met in the Gordon White Building to kick off a long day of conversation to celebrate, reflect on, and learn from 50 years of Puerto Rican Studies. 

The Puerto Rican Studies Association (PRSA) Biennial Symposium, this year hosted by Latino Studies, focused on the emergence and trajectory of Puerto Rican Studies along with Ethnic Studies as a whole. For ethnic studies departments throughout the country, 2019 marks the half-century struggle for inclusion and diversity in higher education. 

To understand the extent of the long-fought battle for ethnic studies that primarily took place during the late 60s, consider that the longest student strike in the U.S. lasted 5 months. On November 6, 1968, on the San Francisco State College campus, a coalition between Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American student organizations. led by the Black Student Union (BSU) and the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), presented a list of 10 “non-negotiable” demands that centered around the creation of a black studies department and admission of more students of color. Inspired by their demands, other ethnic student groups joined the struggle and demanded for similar representation on campus. 

Throughout the nation, students joined the struggle as similar protests sprouted over several campuses, including the 40 Acres. As protests grew in number, so did the attacks on students. Many reported the use of excessive force by law enforcement in efforts to suppress and silence the strikers. 

Finally, on March 20, 1969, the demands of students were met. The BSU administration established a College of Ethnic Studies and agreed to policies that would admit more students of color for the fall semester. 

Shortly after, ethnic studies departments were instituted on college and university campuses throughout the nation, including at The University of Texas at Austin. 

What do we owe our founders? 

It’s a question that Yarimar Bonilla, Professor in the Department of Africana, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies at Hunter College, raised in this past Saturday’s keynote address.  

She urged attendees to reflect on the path that has been paved before them and on a time when students’ insatiable thirst for knowledge and lack of access to their history sparked a revolution. 

“We must not take what we have for granted,” she said. “Rather, we should keep on the fight to preserve this open access to information and make it more accessible. Keep in mind who struggled to get us here and who is now knocking on our doors.” 

She warned about the potential alienating nature of academic jargon and scholarly articles and pushed her colleagues to think about scholarship beyond the text. 

“Make a map. Make an image. MAKE A MEME! ” she said. “Think beyond your discipline and visualize your data for an image-driven society. Don’t underestimate the reading public, they want to engage with our work.” 

The Future of Ethnic Studies

Bonilla noted that enrollment in ethnic studies is at an all-time high, which has led to overenrolled classes. Referring to this supply and demand issue, she questioned whether this was due more to higher ed’s failure to allocate faculty to ethnic studies departments, or simply the rising popularity of the field. Regardless, students' demand for a space to examine their history and culture during this particular time cannot be ignored.

“There is immense value in collective, public scholarship,” she said. “ We have to think about how [we] can leverage resources for a broader public to help connect the larger questions.”

She alluded to The Puerto Rico Syllabus, “a feminist-oriented, women-led, intergenerational project” led by Bonilla, Sarah Molinari, Isabel Guzzardo Tamargo, and our very own faculty member, Marisol LeBrón, as an example of public scholarship.  

“We have to use the tools of this moment to disseminate our knowledge,” Bonilla said. “The question is what are we going to do with that and how are we going to transform Ethnic Studies?” 

For more highlights of the event, view #PRStudiesat50 on Twitter. 

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