Responding to the Crisis in Puerto Rico: Leadership Starts Here By Carlos Rodríguez Martorell Voices of NY (May 4, 2016) Fresh off organizing a massive Puerto Rican Diaspora summit - which attracted some 600 attendees and featured more than 90 panelists including members of Congress, youth coordinators, veterans and religious and LGBTQ leaders - Edwin Meléndez, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, is immersed in quite an unlikely role for an academic: Uniting the growing Puerto Rican community in the U.S. to help the island solve the current $70+ billion debt crisis. On May 2, the island failed to make a debt payment, as widely expected, and the governor warned of more defaults to come. The conference, held on April 22 and 23 at Hunter College's Silberman School of Social Work in East Harlem, addressed what Puerto Ricans living abroad can do to help solve the island's woes. More than once, the fire marshal ordered the auditorium doors closed after the room's 400-seat occupancy limit was reached. Many attendees ended up watching the conference from adjacent rooms via streaming video. "Not even in my dreams could I have envisioned such tremendous success," said Meléndez, adding that since the summit started more that 80,000 people have joined Centro Nation, a new online community designed to connect organizations across the country who are working to address Puerto Rico's economic and humanitarian crisis. "Now comes the hard part: We have to fulfill very high expectations." Virtually every panelist agreed on the need for leadership that would unify the efforts of Puerto Ricans both on the island and statewide under a common cause, and the Center - also commonly known by its Spanish name, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños - is happy to lead the charge. "If we're not going to do it, who is going to do it? I don't see anybody else out there who could play this role," said Meléndez. At a smaller October meeting that the Centro also helped organize in Orlando, Florida, a 30-member Caucus of Puerto Rican Elected Officials emerged. The April summit should take things further in their efforts to craft a National Puerto Rican Agenda. A new role as facilitator The next step, says Meléndez, is to establish alliances with activists on the island. "I am talking to some of the people who came to the conference to share some ideas. They [activists on the island] were already enthusiastic; they just needed to see what we've got." This week, he plans to travel to Puerto Rico to attend meetings aiming to plant the seed for "some future organization, some coalition there." Still, he pointed out that the Centro's role is purely educational and of being a facilitator of meetings and conferences. "I'm not interested in anything other than civic society. I don't want to engage with elected officials," he said. And when asked about the New York meeting of the caucus, he said that he did not participate. The new role is a fairly ambitious one for the usually low-profile Center for Puerto Rican Studies, which was founded in 1973 by a group of CUNY professors and activists as a research and educational resource institution, and has been housed at Hunter College since 1983. Its library has extensive archives including historic film & video, manuscripts, photographs, art prints and music. Meléndez is an economist and professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter, whose research has focused on labor markets, poverty and Latino and Puerto Rican studies. Since he took charge of the Centro in 2008, it has grown considerably, with many more public events and seminars. In 2011, the Centro moved to the Silberman building, an imposing 142,000 square-feet, brand new structure on Third Avenue and 119th Street. According to Meléndez, the research center currently has a staff of more than 60 and a budget of $3,000,000. A big source of funding is the City Council, which this year allocated $970,000 to the institution, and it also receives grants from donors such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. For Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP), the center's new, more prominent role constitutes a logical step that takes the institution back to its roots of community activism in the early 1970s. "Back then it was a very different kind of place, it was really a very radical activist center that was trying to eliminate the boundaries between the community and the university," said Falcón, who did not participate in the summit. Over the next decades, he said, it became a much more mainstream, traditional academic institution, "to the point of becoming too detached from the community." The current debt emergency, which Falcón says has thrown the Puerto Rican people into an "existential crisis," has driven the Centro to correct course. However, he warned that it should stick to a mobilizing and communicating role, and stay away from the political fray. Puerto Rico by the Numbers According to numbers provided by the Centro, in 2014 there were 5,660,000 Puerto Ricans living in the U.S. and 3,400,000 on the island, meaning that only 40 percent of "Boricuas" actually live there. Central Florida is the main destination of Puerto Rican emigrés, but New York continues to be the state with the largest number of Puerto Ricans - 1.1 million, representing 5.5 percent of the population of the state and 30 percent of its total Latino population. "As stateside Puerto Ricans become more numerous than those living on the island, we are now in a stronger position to articulate a national response to how Congress makes decisions regarding Puerto Rico," said Melendez during his opening speech. The Diaspora Summit, which took three months to organize, is by far the Centro's biggest achievement in its effort to bring the diaspora together. The event included a fair, held on Saturday morning, at which more than 20 organizations networked and distributed educational materials. Frustration and anger over the deteriorating finances and quality of life in Puerto Rico came to a head as several panelists demanded an end to the commonwealth's "colonial" status, which prevents Puerto Ricans from voting in federal elections despite being U.S. citizens. Most speakers blasted the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA, an acronym which translates to "promise"), the resolution recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would create a board to supervise and manage the island's debt crisis, and that is currently in limbo because the Republican leadership in Congress has not been able to muster enough support to bring it to a vote. Many panelists explored practical and specific ways in which the diaspora could help the island, especially by registering Puerto Ricans on the mainland to vote in November. Statistics say that only 52 percent of eligible Puerto Ricans vote in presidential elections, the lowest participation rate of any group. During the conference, several people called on Puerto Ricans living in swing states such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania to cast their ballot - specifically as Democrats - to help choose the next president, Senate members and Supreme Court judges. "ThePuerto Ricans who reside in the U.S. are the most powerful Puerto Ricans on the planet, because they can give a voice to the island," said New York labor leader Dennis Rivera. New York elected officials explained that, while they wait for the necessary federal action, there are things that can be done at the state and local level. Puerto Rican-born State Assembly member Marcos Crespo said that, for him, this is an extremely personal issue. "When they talk about numbers, I think about Mami and mi hermano." He also pointed out that, at the latest Somos el Futuro conference in Albany, he called for parity on Medicaid funding for the island (Puerto Rico endures notoriously low levels of federal provider reimbursements). #standupforpuertorico For her part, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said that, "as a puertoriqueña elected official," she is doing her part by helping pass resolutions and engage elected officials, and called for a coordinated grassroots movement with the island in which "we should not discount civil disobedience." Other proposals presented during the conference ranged from recruiting volunteers through social media by spreading the use of the hasthtag #standupforpuertorico, to coordinating mobilizations at an array of institutions such as churches, parades, the over-300 existing cultural organizations, and the seven veteran associations nationwide with which Puerto Ricans are involved. A concern frequently expressed during the summit was that the effects of the debt crisis go beyond the 8.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the island and abroad. "This is an American crisis," said Antonio Weiss, counselor to the Treasury Secretary, warning that, if federal action is not taken urgently, there will be an exodus that could potentially overwhelm a number of cities in the U.S. In some Florida counties, for instance, it was reported that schools are facing seat shortages affecting recently-arrived kids, and Assembly member Crespo warned that some New York health centers are affected by new arrivals of people seeking help with drug abuse. As Philadelphia Council member María Quiñones-Sánchez put it: "Where do you want to solve this crisis, en mi casa o en la tuya?" - My place or yours? _____________________________________________________________ The NiLP Report on Latino Policy & Politics is an online information service provided by the National Institute for Latino Policy. 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