Harvard Educational Review
  1. Summer 1998 Issue »


    Richard Dobles, Jose Antonio Segarra
    When the writers and producers of the NBC television series Seinfeld, including Jerry Seinfeld himself, decided to burn the Puerto Rican flag on national television, they performed a great service for the Puerto Rican people. Albeit unwittingly, this singular event reminded Puerto Ricans of how poorly we are regarded in the American psyche. Puerto Ricans everywhere were forced to ask themselves, would the people of Seinfeld and NBC dare burn any flag other than the Puerto Rican flag? That act, committed presumably in the interest of humor, only poured salt on a hundred-year-old wound. Since October 18, 1898, the day the United States raised its flag on the island of Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans and their flag have been little more than a joke and an occasional nuisance to the American people.

    The controversy that followed Seinfeld's burning of the Puerto Rican flag only provided further evidence of the low regard in which the Puerto Rican people are held. Countless newspapers reported the protests of "Hispanic" groups over the burning of the flag. While there is no doubt that some "Hispanics" took offense, the protests were overwhelmingly led by Puerto Ricans. Of course, such a subtlety as the distinction between the term "Puerto Rican" and the meaningless term "Hispanic"--a term so broad and all- encompassing that it loses virtually all usefulness as a means of identifying any cultural or nationality group--is lost on the media. By obfuscating the fact that it was Puerto Ricans, not Hispanics, who raised their voice in protest, the mainstream media succeeded in ignoring the unique historical relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico.

    What is the nature of that relationship? The fact that Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States would probably come as a surprise to those who reported the "Hispanic" protests. It would also come as no surprise to us, as Puerto Ricans, if the general readership of this journal is equally as ignorant of Puerto Rican history. For many years, Puerto Rican scholars have had to contend with a general lack of knowledge about a people who are six million strong and (technically) citizens of the United States. As a consequence, Puerto Rican educational scholars, regardless of their particular discipline, have had to become pseudo-historians as well, telling and retelling the tale of U.S. occupation and the subsequent colonial subjugation of the Puerto Rican people.

    Just as the first chapter of a doctoral thesis is often the literature review, it seems as though the required first chapter of a book on Puerto Rican education, even if it is an ethnographic study of a classroom in 1998, must be a historical account for those who know nothing of Puerto Ricans. While such a history lesson is undoubtedly useful for the uninitiated, it is our contention that the devil is in the details. It is by understanding the particular experiences of Puerto Ricans with U.S. colonialism, as expressed in the articles in this Symposium, that we come to a deeper understanding of Puerto Rican history, and not vice versa.

    Another of the many ironies of the Puerto Rican reality is the fact that, while largely ignored within the mainstream discussion of "Hispanics," many Puerto Rican scholars who take an anti-colonial--and therefore anti-American--stance must live in fear of persecution from the U.S. government. An example of such persecution is the experience of José Solís Jordán, a professor of education at the University of Puerto Rico and former teacher of education at DePaul University. Solís, who received his doctorate in educational policy studies from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, is a highly respected scholar in his field. His book, Public School Reform in Puerto Rico: Sustaining Colonial Models of Development, has quickly become required reading in the field of Puerto Rican educational policy. When we sought in vain for Solís, hoping to solicit an article from him for this Symposium, we learned he had been arrested by the FBI in his home in Puerto Rico for "promoting [through violent means] the independence of Puerto Rico."

    The frightening story of his arrest, detainment, and interrogation is a cautionary tale to those of us seeking justice for the Puerto Rican people. The FBI surrounded Solís's house clad in black fatigues, brandished high-powered weapons, and insisted that he strip down in front of his family. He was then taken away by the FBI and held for several hours before he was informed of the crime of which he was accused or allowed legal counsel. It is hard to imagine that a respected academic could experience such a basic violation of his fundamental rights and privileges as a U.S. citizen. Unfortunately, this event only further points out that the citizenship of Puerto Ricans is, at best, second class.

    The second-class citizenship of Puerto Ricans may help to explain why they have "been studied to death," and, paradoxically, have also "achieved the dubious distinction of being one of the most undereducated ethnic groups in the United States." The question, therefore, of the usefulness of yet another collection of articles about Puerto Ricans must be addressed. For the better part of this century, much of the English-language scholarship on Puerto Ricans has been written by White, U.S. scholars, who explore the Puerto Rican experience from an outsider's perspective. Much of this scholarship, unreflective in its stance vis-à-vis this community, has taken on the familiar tone of the imperial outsider researching the "exotic other."

    Within the last twenty years, however, scholarship about Puerto Ricans by Puerto Ricans has emerged that challenges the colonial stance of many earlier English-language scholars. This new scholarship coincided with the human rights, women's, and civil rights movements in the United States in the 1960s. Building on this tradition, the writers in this Symposium offer an antidote to the colonial type of research prevalent during the first two-thirds of this century.

    Much has been written about the impact of colonialism on peoples and cultures throughout the world. Recently, a great deal of attention has been paid to the lives of peoples living in postcolonial colonies (e.g., Bhabha, Spivak). While this scholarship is useful for understanding the impact of colonialism, the jury is still out on its usefulness for examining the experiences of Puerto Ricans, which, as Juan Flores states, "would seem to be emphatically colonial in both historical trajectory and present condition."

    Thus, we offer a working definition of colonialism only as a departure point, from which we can begin to examine critically the particular experiences of the communities and individuals presented in this Symposium. Colonialism is composed of a complex set of relationships stemming from the underlying condition of subjugation in which one power has control over another peoples' education, language(s), customs, lands, and economic means of sustenance. In the case of Puerto Rico, colonialism refers to a set of relationships it has with the United States. In the case of Puerto Ricans living within the United States, which is the primary focus of our Symposium, we are referring to a colonized people living within the colonizer. This colonial reality imposes new and unwanted relationships and at the same time fractures preexisting ones, as evidenced by the countless working-class families and communities now divided geographically between the Island and the "mainland." Symbolically, culturally, and historically, the Puerto Rican people have thus been linked together by struggle against the imposed relationships of colonial domination.

    In this Symposium, education is the umbrella under which other relationships imposed by colonialism are explored. It is important to understand that the Puerto Rican experience with education has involved an imposed system of education, with little or no opportunity for social or economic mobility, for self-determination, or for fulfillment. Consequently, one of the main questions raised by this Symposium is: Within the context of education, how do the colonized negotiate, resist, and struggle against the colonizer and against the relationships imposed by the colonial condition?

    One of the most important relationships between colonialism and education is that of language. When we speak of the connection between language and colonialism for Puerto Ricans, we must address the idea of a "colonial bilingualism." In this view, Puerto Ricans do not only possess two tools of communication, but also must embrace two worlds in tension and conflict--those of the colonizer and the colonized. The Puerto Rican struggle has often fought against national and state movements to create a monolingual society, and the impact of these efforts has been felt at the local, state, and national levels. Because the debate about bilingual education is tied to the struggle of many linguistic and national minority groups, Puerto Ricans' anti-colonial stance toward monolingual language policies has had an impact that extends well beyond the Puerto Rican community to other linguistic and cultural language-minority groups.

    The great majority of Puerto Ricans in the United States and on the Island attend public schools and reside in working-class communities. When we address the need for relevant education within U.S. public schools, we are speaking particularly of the need for curricula and texts that reflect students' realities. Historically, U.S. students, Puerto Rican or not, have little or no sense of their own or others' histories of struggle and working-class resistance. Thus, in addition to resisting linguistic and cultural imperialism, the Puerto Rican community has resisted the texts and studies that have historically ignored, misrepresented, or caricatured the Puerto Rican people. This Symposium reflects that historical tradition of Puerto Rican resistance. As Clara Rodríguez notes:

    The cultural traditions and literatures of both Puerto Ricans and Native Americans have been severely neglected. Histories of both groups tend to begin with the official date of conquest, and are thereby constructed within the official U.S. canon. Thus, in the case of Puerto Ricans, the literature [and we would add history] "began" after 1898.

    Given the above conceptualization, this Symposium does not include the chronology that pervades virtually every text written about the Puerto Rican experience (that is, 1898--U.S. occupation; 1900--military government disbanded and civilian government established; 1917--U.S. citizenship granted to the Puerto Rican people). These dates have been documented time and time again, yet the history of the Puerto Rican people remains elusive. In order to place the experiences of Puerto Rican students in the foreground--and the colonial history of the Puerto Rican people in the background--this Symposium is rooted in the experiences of Puerto Rican students in U.S. schools. Rather than allowing our history to be determined by the history of U.S. colonial domination, this Symposium contributes to the writing of a Puerto Rican history based upon struggle and resistance against a colonial imposition.

    In "Fact and Fiction: Stories of Puerto Ricans in U.S. Schools," Sonia Nieto argues for the need to view both traditional research and fictional works as valuable sources of data on the educational experiences of Puerto Ricans. In addition to raising the argument that fiction is a useful source of knowledge, Nieto also points out that "facts" are often relative. She refers to the countless studies conducted on Puerto Rican children that have ironically yielded little more than fictional information. That information, such as the still relevant and frequently cited study by Oscar Lewis, often labeled Puerto Rican children and families as the source of the "problem," while ignoring the complex social, economic, and historical realities of those families. Thus, while the facts produced by countless researchers and academics have often led to the publication of non-truths, much of the fiction produced by a growing core of Puerto Rican writers expresses the histories of the Puerto Rican experience in highly complex and authentic ways.

    By combining valid research and respected works of fiction, Nieto weaves a tapestry of the Puerto Rican experience that allows the reader to see the nuances contained therein. She presents a series of dialectics that help to illuminate the Puerto Rican experience in its complexity and richness. The first dialectic, colonialism/resistance, accentuates the pull and push between the United States, a colonial power, and the Puerto Rican people, who are, paradoxically, colonized as well as citizens of the colonizer. She follows this dialectic with three others: assimilation/identity, cultural deficit/cultural acceptance, and marginalization/belonging.

    Nieto argues that a pedagogy of care holds the greatest hope for Puerto Rican children to resist in generative and regenerative ways the inevitable domination of the colonial relationship and its consequences. Puerto Rican children, like all children, need to know that the adults in charge of their educational lives care about them as human beings. For Puerto Rican children, this is a particularly important message because the colonial relationship provides ample evidence to the contrary.

    The pedagogy of care espoused by Nieto is put into practice by the teachers and activists of the Pedro Albizu Campos High School (PACHS). In "Nationalist Ideologies, Neigborhood-Based Activism, and Educational Spaces in Puerto Rican Chicago," Ana Ramos-Zayas tells the story of this school, a story that is rich with irony and paradox. For instance, although many PACHS students are "outcasts" from the neighborhood's more traditional high school, they manage to find success at PACHS by pursuing traditional social mobility routes--such as a college education--that are generally unavailable to the majority of Puerto Rican students in the traditional high schools. The fact that these students pursue such traditional options at a school that critically examines the myth of the "American Dream" presents an interesting twist in the success story of PACHS students. In another ironic twist, students and teachers are often accused of terrorist activity by a mainstream press for actions that can generally be regarded as grassroots democracy at its best: the students often participate in protests for community rights, as well as for the rights of Puerto Rican political prisoners who have been falsely imprisoned.

    In an age characterized by a general apathy and lack of civic engagement, a school that inspires such democratic participation by its students is truly revolutionary. The label of "terrorists" levied against the school by the mainstream media in Chicago, and by some assimilated middle-class Puerto Ricans, would be humorous if it did not also signal the desperate need for colonial powers to maintain their dominant position over a Puerto Rican community that is struggling for its survival. Ultimately, Ramos-Zayas's study is less about the Puerto Rican colonial position and more about the liberatory actions of the community's grassroots activists grounded in an oppositional nationalist ideology. Ramos-Zayas argues that "schooling cannot be divorced from the political and socioeconomic forces governing neighborhood development" (p. 165). The success of the Pedro Albizu Campos High School students is living proof of this argument--and perhaps terrifying proof to those who seek to maintain the status quo.

    In "Bilingual Education for Puerto Ricans in New York City: From Hope to Compromise," legal scholar Sandra Del Valle examines the role that bilingual education has played in the struggle for educational and civil rights of Puerto Ricans in New York City. From the 1960s to the present, litigative and pedagogical struggles for bilingual education have been waged by such grassroots organizations as ASPIRA, the United Bronx Parents, and, most recently, the Bushwick Parents Organization. According to Del Valle, bilingual education in the last twenty years has been compromised on the local and the national levels, from federal decisionmaking vis-à-vis legislative policies through Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968, and at the judicial level through the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lau v. Nichols.

    Del Valle claims that the hopes and concessions of bilingual language policies have often been predicated on what lawyers and other professionals believe is the best form of bilingual education. If the Puerto Rican community is to continue to make gains in its demand for bilingual education programs that attend to the language needs of its students, Del Valle says, parents, students, and local grassroots organizations will have to work alongside litigators and other professionals. She envisions new political education strategies for bilingual education in New York City and across the nation. Del Valle's call for action is "radical and hopeful, as daring and as resourceful as Puerto Ricans who fought for bilingual education twenty-five years ago and the new immigrants who will continue to fight for it in the future" (p. 215).

    In "`Staging Encounters': The Educational Decline of U.S. Puerto Ricans in [Post]-Colonial Perspective," Catherine Walsh also argues for a call to action. Continuing the themes of colonization and resistance touched upon by other authors in this Symposium, Walsh presents a case study of a northeastern city of less than one hundred thousand people that she calls "Mill City." She argues that the educational decline of Mill City's Puerto Rican students exemplifies what is happening to Puerto Rican students nationwide. Walsh's analysis of Mill City's educational situation is important to our understanding of the varied experiences of Puerto Rican students in the United States. It is important to consider, as Walsh points out, that "while Puerto Ricans have historically been concentrated in large cities of the Northeast, the Puerto Rican presence in cities of relatively smaller size has increased dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s"(p. 225). Thus, this study is critical to understanding the educational experience of this ever-increasing population of Puerto Rican students, for whom the large urban experience is no longer the norm.

    Examining this city's educational policies over the last decade, Walsh describes the systematic neglect of the needs of its Puerto Rican students. This neglect, which would be considered criminal by any standards of decency, is encouraged by an administrative power base that is overwhelmingly White and lacking almost entirely in Puerto Rican representation. In response, Puerto Rican parents and students have mobilized against school policies that are evidence of the apathy and disdain that permeates the school system. Walsh demonstrates clearly that the "condition of educational decline for Puerto Ricans in Mill City schools . . . is a condition that has been fostered, enabled, and, in essence, institutionalized through the policies and practices of the school administration"(pp. 236-237). Placing these policies within a [post]-colonial framework encourages a critical and political view of the school "failure" of Puerto Rican students, and demands that we place school administrators under the same microscope under which we are so often willing to place the students who fail.

    We conclude this Symposium with the words of Antonia Pantoja, a woman who has been a central figure in the educational and political struggles of Puerto Ricans, and who also embodies the living spirit of resistance against the dehumanizing effects of oppression. Pantoja, who was born in 1921 in Punta de Tierra, Puerto Rico, grew up in Barrio Obrero (Worker's Barrio) in a working-class family. From an early age, Pantoja was involved in political activities. She spent most of her adult working life in New York City, where she was involved in organizing several important community-based institutions that are still active today. In this conversation with her colleague and friend, Wilhelmina Perry, Pantoja shares the personal experiences that shaped her attitudes and guided her lifelong struggle against wage exploitation, racism, sexism, and colonialism among her people. Pantoja's life reflects her commitment to resisting the colonization and exploitation of the Puerto Rican community. To this day, she remains active in projects and social movements related to the struggles of Puerto Rican people.

    The history we seek to illuminate in this Symposium is grounded in action: the actions of the students and teachers at the Pedro Albizu Campos High School, the actions of the lawyers and community activists in Brooklyn, New York, the actions of neocolonial administrators in a northeastern city, and the actions of a lifetime of struggle. What thematic or theoretical grounding we offer will not be found in a lifeless chronology of dates and demographic figures, but in the fact and fiction of the Puerto Rican experience as it is lived day by day in the heart of the empire of which Puerto Rico is a colony. In this way we show that educational policies, reforms, and political and social movements aimed at "improving" the educational status of Puerto Rican students must take into account the nexus of U.S. colonialism and the pernicious effects of the wage exploitation imposed by capitalism on the education of working-class Puerto Ricans.

    This Symposium does not pretend to cover all the needs and experiences of all Puerto Rican students on the "mainland" and on the Island. Nor is this collection of articles intended to be the definitive work on Puerto Ricans and education. It is the Harvard Educational Review's first entry into this area of scholarship, and we hope not the last. As such, we are cognizant of, though not apologetic about, what is not covered in this Symposium, and recognize that the research presented here is only half of the Puerto Rican story. We acknowledge the ever-growing and important body of literature that originates with and looks at Puerto Rican students and communities on the Island. This symposium is a call to scholars de aqui y de alla (from here and from there) to engage in conversations that take into account the complexities of the working-class Puerto Rican educational experience.

    We would be dishonest if we did not state that we write this introduction and present this Symposium with some trepidation. The experiences of Professor Solís and others, including the man to whom we dedicate this Symposium, Don Pedro Albizu Campos (one of the first Puerto Rican graduates of Harvard University and a Puerto Rican nationalist who was illegally imprisoned for much of his life), teach us a valuable lesson.

    While mainstream America cares not a bit about Puerto Ricans outside of their entertainment value, there are some who care a great deal about those Puerto Ricans who attempt to challenge the status quo of U.S. imperial domination. We are not so naive as to believe that two student editors of the Harvard Educational Review can draw the ire of the U.S. government; however, we are also not so ignorant of the history of U.S.-Puerto Rican relations that we can write without fear of persecution in whatever form it may take. With that in mind, we would like to dedicate this Symposium to the political prisoners and prisoners of war enduring such persecution: Elizam Escobar, Ricardo Jiménez, Adolfo Matos, Antonio Camacho Negrón, Dylcia Pagán, Oscar López Rivera, Alberto Rodríguez, Alicia Rodríguez, Ida Luz Rodríguez, Luís Rosa, Juan Segarra Palmer, Carlos Alberto Torres, Alejandrina Torres, Edwin Torres, and Carmen Valentín.

    We would also like to recognize and give thanks to (while mindful not to implicate) those who have supported us in our work: the HER Editorial Board; our families and friends: Catalina and Joaquin Castro; Andrea Navarro; Beth, Andrés Sr., Carmen, Andrés Jr., and José Dobles; Mark Garcia, Maria Colón, José Manuel Cruz, and Wilson Valentín.

    While our efforts and our words are our own, we simply could not do our work without the support of those mentioned above and the inspiration of the millions of Puerto Ricans who engage in the day-to-day struggle against poverty, oppression, and despair.

    Ricardo Dobles
    José Antonio Segarra

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    Summer 1998 Issue


    Richard Dobles, Jose Antonio Segarra
    Ricardo Dobles, Jose Antonio Segarra
    Symposium: Fact and Fiction: Stories of Puerto Ricans in U.S. Schools
    Sonia Nieto
    Symposium: Nationalist Ideologies, Neighborhood-Based Activism, and Educational Spaces in Puerto Rican Chicago
    Ana Y. Ramos-Zayas
    Symposium: Bilingual Education for Puerto Ricans in New York City: From Hope to Compromise
    Sandra Del Valle
    Symposium: "Staging Encounters": The Educational Decline of U.S. Puerto Ricans in [Post]-Colonial Perspective
    Catherine E. Walsh
    Symposium: Memorias de una Vida de Obra (Memories of a Life of Work): An Interview with Antonia Pantoja
    Wilhelmina Perry

    Book Notes

    Revolutionary Multiculturalism
    By Peter McLaren

    Anything but Mexican
    By Rodolfo F. Acuña

    Education for Extinction
    By David Wallace Adams

    The Other Struggle for Equal Schools
    By Rubén Donato

    The Changing Curriculum
    By Ivor F. Goodson

    Personas Mexicanas
    By James Diego Vigil

    Many Families, Many Literacies
    Edited by Denny Taylor

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.