Note on Accepting the Directorship of El CENTRO

I am pleased to announce that beginning July 1, 2021 I will be assuming the role of Acting Director of El Centro, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. I would like to thank everyone who rallied and organized during this moment of transition, who wrote and signed the petition to “Save Centro,” and particularly the auto-convocado group that activated the #Community4Centro coordinating committee.

Your efforts were key to informing my decision to accept the interim directorship and your concerns guided my discussions with the administration about institutional commitment to the center moving forward. My hope is that the momentum and energy built over the past month can be sustained and that I will be able to count on your collective brain trust and tactical expertise as we chart a new chapter for Centro together.

I have agreed to serve as Acting Director for two years, during which time a national search will be organized. Although one would wish for the first woman to run the Centro to arrive in a different context, a hurried search in the midst of a pandemic, a budgeting crisis, and a hiring freeze at CUNY serves no one.

The many different Centro constituencies, including CUNY faculty, students, academic leaders, and community members, all deserve to be part of charting a new path forward. I will be convening town hall meetings to open conversations about new thematic directions and expect a national search that will bring faith and pride in our institution.

Most importantly, I will be working with the administration to fill vacant lines and restore resources and support that Centro has lost over the years. Depending on how much I am able to achieve during that time—and if the pledges of support made by the administration materialize—I will then consider whether I would like to be a candidate in the national search. These are the terms that I requested because I think they are what will most benefit El Centro and our community.

The next two years, however, will not be a time of mere pause and reflection — the issues that our communities face are much too urgent for that. As we transition towards a new chapter, I will work to develop new programs, seek new funding, establish fellowships, issue calls for research proposals, and develop other initiatives with your input.

For those that don’t know me well, allow me to offer a few words about my trajectory and the background I will bring to Centro:

Although I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, my life has been shaped by what scholars call circular migration, or the Puerto Rican vaivén: I arrived in Topeka, Kansas as a kindergartener who didn’t speak English, then later returned to Puerto Rico as a teenager with rusty Spanish. I graduated from public school and became politicized as an undergraduate at the University of Puerto Rico, but my most formative years were spent as a doctoral student in Chicago living and working in the Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park.

My years spent at the University of New Mexico and the University of Virginia gave me invaluable insights into the US as not just an empire, but also a settler colony and a racial state. The ties I built with African American and Native American scholars still shape the ways I think about Puerto Rico’s place within the US.

I moved to New York City a decade ago, first to teach at Rutgers and then at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at CUNY where I have found an intellectual cadre of students and colleagues that have helped me flourish as a scholar and public voice. I now consider New York—and particularly Brooklyn—as much of a home as San Juan.

My training as a Caribbeanist leads me to constantly place Puerto Rico within a larger comparative frame. My first book focuses on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. My interest in the French Caribbean was driven by a desire to compare how our Caribbean neighbors—who have a similar relationship to France as what Puerto Rico might have to the United States under statehood—understand their place in the French nation and how and why they continue to search for greater sovereignty. Since then, I have continued to write about questions of sovereignty in the Caribbean, as well as racial and imperial politics in the United States broadly.

Six years ago, I began fieldwork for a new project focused on the politics of the statehood movement in Puerto Rico. However, since that time Puerto Rico has experienced repeated and compounding crises, disasters, earthquakes and pandemics and my interests have grown and evolved in relation to our historical conjuncture. Along with the usual forms of academic writing, during this critical time I have also foregrounded multiple forms of public scholarship, public advocacy, and collective projects that amplify voices from both sides of the “charco.” Among these projects I am most proud of the digital resource Puerto Rico Syllabus and the edited volume and accompanying film, Aftershocks of Disaster.

As a cultural anthropologist, what I do best and enjoy most is to listen to others and ask questions. I am also a deeply interdisciplinary scholar — some might say anti-disciplinary. I’ve written op-eds with economists, published in art catalogs, created time-lapse maps, documentary films, podcasts, and worked with psychologists and public health scholars on thinking through the challenges our communities face in the wake of our multiple disasters. I hope that under my leadership Centro can be a space where all these different modes, methods, and communities can productively intersect.

I’m also particularly keen on creating intergenerational dialogue. We are very lucky that many of those who fought for the establishment of Puerto Rican Studies and the creation of the Centro are still in our community. These “elders” need to remain central to the space they willed into being. At the same time, Puerto Rican Studies as a whole is going through a “relevo generacional” with a new generation of scholars bringing new questions and urgency to the study of the Puerto Rican archipelago and diaspora in ways that center previously marginalized perspectives and methodologies. My hope is to serve as a bridge between these different generations and to bring them into generative dialogue.

I will not be officially operating as acting director until July 1, but I remain open to dialogue between now and then and am particularly keen on hearing from the Centro community (broadly speaking) about the thematic directions that they would like to see reflected in Centro programming and initiatives. You can write to me directly or join the community group #Community4 CENTRO to stay informed of new developments.

I am here to listen to any concerns you have about this transition, but most of all I want to hear about your hopes for our new collective chapter.

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