Understanding Nydia Velzáquez – Chapter 1

In 1981, after hiding underground for five years, Oscar López-Rivera, a Puerto Rican born activist and independence leader was caught by the FBI and sentenced to 55-years for seditious conspiracy. López-Rivera was one of  thousands of Puerto Ricans fighting for the freedom of his homeland, in an ongoing fight spanning  centuries.

Elsewhere in the continental US that year, another Puerto Rican born, independence-activist and leader fought for the Island in a classroom. Nydia Velázquez, taught Puerto Rican Studies to undergraduates at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, in what would later be the department of Africana and Puerto Rico/Latino Studies.

A few years later, Velázquez would work her way into more mainstream politics, leaving the goals of national Puerto Rican independence aside. Yet, she didn’t forget her beginnings. In early January of this year, Velázquez and three other members of Congress of Puerto Rican descent sent a letter to the Parole Commission calling for Lopez to be freed on parole.

This balance of Puerto Rican identity and a quest for wider Latino support is important for Congresswoman Velázquez. Not only do Latinos make up 28% of New York City population, “if population growth continues at the yearly rates found between 2000 and 2007 Dominicans
will surpass Puerto Ricans and become the largest sector of the City’s Latino population in 2020,” found a study by the Latino Data Project based out of CUNY’s Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies program.

Also, in 2008, the  National Institute For Latino Policy polled 1,000 Latino leaders across the US regarding the most important issues facing their communities. Regarding Puerto Rico’s Independence, NILP found that only 31% supported full independence, 54% supported some form of US statehood (be it a proper US state,  commonwealth status or associated republic), and the remaining 15% either wasn’t sure or didn’t care.

Still, there is more than statistics to encourage the Congresswoman to broaden her cultural identity from Puerto Rican to Latino.

The philosophy of the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies, where the Congresswoman taught in 1981, says on its website that the curriculum is inspired by the work of Eugenio María de Hostos and Pedro Albizu Campos. Both were Puerto Rican leaders who believed in national independence, but that’s where the similarities stop. Albizu Campos (1893 –  1965) was dark-skinned, from meager beginnings and yet went to Harvard for law school. He returned to PR, and worked as a labor lawyer and national independence leader.

On the other hand, Hostos (1839 – 1903) was born into a light-skinned affluent family and attended law school in Spain. He viewed Puerto Rico’s independence differently Albizu, favoring a larger alliance or “Antillean Confederation” between Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.

In the late 1930s, Albizu was imprisoned for 10 years for leading nationalists revolts, and then again in the 1950s. He died in prison in 1964, which the Clinton Administration later exposed was due to “experimenting” with radiation treatment. Hostos died in the Dominican Republic of natural causes.

Oscar López-Rivera founded a high school in Chicago, now called Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School.

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, there is I.S. 318  Eugenio Maria de Hostos, which is in Congresswoman Velázquez’s 12th district.

photos courtesy of wikipedia

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