New York City must restore funding for CUNY’s Centro program

William Alatriste/New York City Council

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito may have cut her nose to spite her face when she decided to slash funding for CUNY’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro).

The speaker reportedly cut Centro’s funding in half because the program’s director, Dr. Edwin Melendez, allegedly refused to take sides on the controversy to honor Puerto Rico independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera in the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. Mark-Viverito has not confirmed nor denied the story.

If the story is accurate, Mark-Viverito bears the blame for hurting an organization that is indispensable to the education and mobilization of the Puerto Rican diaspora on issues that are important to her, particularly Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis.

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Most New Yorkers are not familiar with Centro, the only research, archival and publishing institute in the United States exclusively dedicated to Puerto Rican studies. Centro sponsors conferences, exhibits and educational products that highlight the Puerto Rican experience in the United States. It is supported by a New York State tax levy and also by New York City, which, at Mark-Viverito’s behest, just cut its funding from $970,000 last year to $500,000 this June.

Since 2015, Centro has expanded its agenda to include Puerto Rico’s economic and humanitarian crisis and its impact on stateside Puerto Ricans. It is the only organization that has ever made a concerted effort to educate the Puerto Rican diaspora nationwide. The response has been overwhelming. Not only do Puerto Ricans want to learn more about the crisis, they want to know how to help. I know, because I have participated in Centro’s events.

Unfortunately, the City Council’s decision will force Centro to cut back these dissemination and engagement activities just when Puerto Rico needs all hands on deck.

The challenges facing Puerto Rico are manifold. Congress was quick to impose a Fiscal Oversight Board on Puerto Rico to balance the budget and restructure its $74 billion debt but it has yet to deliver an economic growth package that will end its 11-year recession. Unhappy creditors are asking Congress to overturn Fiscal Oversight Board decisions that are not in their favor. Puerto Rico faces a $300 million Medicaid funding shortfall for the fiscal year that started on July 1. An informed diaspora can put pressure on Congress to do right by Puerto Rico on these and many other issues.

Centro’s refusal to support Mark Viverito and the National Puerto Rican Day Parade leadership had nothing to do with Lopez Rivera and everything to do with Centro’s history and mission as an academic institution.

Established in 1973, Centro is the product of student demands for race and ethnic studies during the CUNY-wide 1969 protests. Historically, identity scholarship has been marginalized by mainstream academia both within and outside the CUNY system. Accordingly these programs, which include Puerto Rican studies, have been underfunded and bureaucratically undermined.

Over the years Centro has worked hard to earn the support and respect of CUNY’s academic community by fostering scholarship and producing quality research. As an institution of higher learning it is expected to act as a neutral convener and source of information, not as a political mouthpiece. Centro has supported Mark-Viverito’s  agenda by providing a nonpartisan forum where the Puerto Rican diaspora can learn and engage in the issues that concern her, including the Puerto Rico crisis and the Oscar Lopez Rivera case.

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If the allegations are true, why would the speaker undercut an organization with which she shares so much common ground over a single disagreement?

Most of the people I have met through Centro supported the release of Oscar Lopez Rivera. Many of them believe in Puerto Rican independence. Others thought his sentence for conspiring against the government was excessive and inhumane. Those of us who worked for his release did not question each other’s motivations. We simply focused on the end goal.

Why does it have to be any different when it comes to the Puerto Rico crisis? Why can we not work together in spite of ideological differences? Are we so politically inflexible that we are willing to undercut longtime allies? And why have other Puerto Rican leaders remained so quiet on an issue that impacts all Puerto Ricans and not just Centro?

I am not a New Yorker. But I look up to our Puerto Rican leaders in New York, including Melissa Mark Viverito, for their experience and guidance.

Let’s put our differences behind. Let’s do what it right for Puerto Rico. Restoring Centro funding would be a good start.

Gretchen Sierra-Zorita is a policy and communication strategist, focusing on Latino and Puerto Rican issues.