In the mid-1970s, even as President Richard Nixon’s “law and order” and anti-busing campaigns signaled to many the decline of the civil rights movement, Evelina Antonetty was beginning to reap the fruits of her organizing work in the South Bronx. Antonetty, a Puerto Rican, had been training Puerto Rican and African American mothers to fight for their children’s education in New York City schools since 1965. Standing at the forefront of the bilingual education movement for Spanish-speaking children, she was at the peak of her political activism. Crucially, she was forging national networks with African American, Native American, and Mexican American parents interested in community control of education. She believed that her political work reflected a broader political transformation among Puerto Rican New Yorkers. Borrowing parts of a speech delivered by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. at a Young Men and Women’s Christian Association meeting in 1957, Antonetty expressed her own desire to reclaim her dignity in the face of a racist society: “Maladjusted is a word used perhaps more frequently than any other in modern psychology, and I am calling on the people of this city to be maladjusted. There are many things in this social system to which I am proud to be maladjusted. I can never adjust myself to the evils of segregation and discrimination. . . . I am sure history has a place for those who have the moral courage to be maladjusted. . . . Maladjusted like Don Pedro Albizu Campos who believed that [if] even the birds are free, why not Puerto Ricans?”
Antonetty’s use of the term “culturally maladjusted” indicated Puerto Ricans’ new stance in dealing with their position of racial subjugation: rather than avoiding associations with African Americans, they began to align themselves more closely with black leaders’ confrontational political methods. Modeling themselves after Martin Luther King Jr. and other black civil rights leaders, Puerto Rican leaders reclaimed the literature of “cultural maladjustment” and used it to create a new vocabulary of racial pride. Puerto Ricans had not “argue[d] or f[ought] back” in the past, Antonetty asserted, but they were “no longer content to exist in a minor role.” They were now “determined to be self-determined.” Just as Black Power leaders reimagined blackness as a basis for cultural renewal and political mobilization, so too did Puerto Rican leaders reconstruct Puerto Rican-ness as a basis for their political empowerment.
Antonetty’s strategy of being “maladjusted” to segregation included establishing close collaborations with African American leaders as well as creating Puerto Ricans’ own independent political organizations. Together with black leaders such as Milton Galamison, Babette Edwards, and David Spencer, Antonetty established the People’s Board of Education in 1967 to promote an educational reform campaign in the city’s public schools. She also began to connect with educators interested in black education reform across the nation through publications in Foresight, a bimonthly journal produced by the Black Teachers Workshop. Sharing ideas with writers like James and Grace Lee Boggs from Detroit, she contributed to a national conversation about the implications of Black Power in urban education. Even as Antonetty forged vital links between Puerto Rican and black activists, she also remained committed to the development of independent Puerto Rican and Latino organizations. She utilized United Bronx Parents, an organization she founded, to address the specific needs of Puerto Ricans living in the South Bronx. In the late 1970s, as New York’s Dominican population was increasing, she also took part in efforts to create partnerships with other Spanish-speaking groups through the Coalition in Defense of Puerto Rican and Hispanic Rights. By creating such multiple and overlapping political networks, Antonetty took part in a broader political movement in which black and Puerto Rican activists forged a common struggle toward racial justice.
My book analyzes how the meanings of “blackness” and “Puerto Rican-ness” changed over time as a result of the social mobilizations that took place between the two groups in New York City. Not only were Puerto Ricans and African Americans racialized as “nonwhite” in parallel ways, but they also utilized their racial and ethnic identities as sites of political mobilization through mutual collaborations and contestations of power. The remaking of “blackness” and “Latinidad” in the postwar era thus took place not as separate movements but as intertwined and mutually reinforcing historical processes. Taking to heart Rogers Brubaker and Frederick Cooper’s critique that previous scholarship on “identity” has placed too much focus on “boundary-formation rather than boundary crossing, the constitution of groups rather than the development of networks,” I look at the formation of Puerto Ricans’ racial and ethnic identities as an interplay between their sensibility as a people of color with African Americans, their self-understanding as Hispanic with other Spanish-speaking groups, and their identity as members of a distinct Puerto Rican nation. The boundaries between these subjectivities were never fixed but constantly shifting. Although most racialization studies have explained the establishment of those boundaries largely as a top-down process, whereby a dominant group imposes essential markers of indelible inferiority upon another, I argue that African Americans and Puerto Ricans themselves were pivotal actors within the racialization of “blackness” and “Puerto Rican-ness.” They helped delineate the boundaries of these categories and the permeability between them.
From Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City by Sonia Song-Ha Lee. Copyright (c) 2014 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu