‘Our narratives are going to empower’: HCC hosts summit on Puerto Rican diaspora 

  • Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago delivers a keynote address, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

  • A panel at a summit on the Puerto Rican diaspora, from left to right: Vanessa Pabon-Hernandez, Adam Gómez, Jose Luis Rivera and Betty Medina Lichtenstein, Saturday, Oct. 12, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/MICHAEL CONNORS

  • A man waves a Puerto Rican flag June 22, 2017 during a Holyoke neighborhood celebration in honor of Oscar Lopez Rivera, an activist for Puerto Rican independence. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/13/2019 7:49:46 AM

HOLYOKE — Two years ago, Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, leveling homes, killing thousands and keeping many more in the dark during the longest blackout in United States history.

For Lory Santiago, 22, and Ilhan Braxton, 22, who live in Connecticut, the storm’s chaos transcended geographical borders. Santiago’s father, who was living in Puerto Rico and suffering from cancer, was forced into hospice care, where he later died due to a lack of resources following the storm. Braxton waited for six months until she finally heard from her family, who to this day are struggling on the island with few basic necessities. 

“I still have family members who have to bathe with a bucket,” Braxton said. “They have no water pressure.”

Santiago and Braxton participated in a daylong conference at Holyoke Community College on Saturday called “Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans New England Diaspora Summit,” an exploration of the impact of Hurricane Maria evacuees on the Puerto Rican population of New England. The day was marked with panels, speakers and breakout sessions that explored the past, present and future challenges of Puerto Ricans on and off of the island.

The storm, along with subsequent mismanagement of federal relief efforts, forced thousands to evacuate the U.S. territory for the mainland. Cities and towns across the country aided in the resettlement efforts, including the city of Holyoke, where 2,200 families came for refuge after being displaced. Back on the island, the territory is dealing with the aftermath of a political scandal that sent hundreds of thousands to the streets and eventually led to the resignation of the island’s governor earlier this year.

The summit’s keynote speaker, Carlos Santiago, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education, compared the number of migrants after the Great Recession and Maria in the mainland to that of the Great Migration, a resettling of Puerto Ricans to New York City following World War II. Holyoke counted 44.7 percent of its total population as Puerto Rican, according to the 2010 census. Santiago said this number is now estimated to be more than half.

“Has that translated into political representation?” Carlos Santiago asked. “It has not. In all levels, at the local level, at the state level and at the national level, we are still, in terms of political representation, pretty much an invisible community.”

Santiago said Puerto Ricans who had migrated to the mainland started to create a middle class after mass dispersion out of New York City in the 1970s, as many started to go to school and find employment in jobs other than manufacturing.

“Education has been a key motivator and path for Puerto Rican empowerment and economic success,” he said. 

Santiago pointed to high college graduation and enrollment rates in Massachusetts, but said when the numbers are looked at through the lens of race and ethnicity, inequities begin to show. Around 65 percent of white females in the commonwealth have bachelor’s degrees, he said, citing state data, compared to 22 percent of Latino males with the same qualification.  

As private colleges in the state flounder, total enrollment also decreases, Santiago said. But as the number of white students enrolling in school goes down, he predicts that the number of Latinx students will increase.

“There is an economic imperative for us to look at equity in Massachusetts,” he said. “Our high standard of living is going to fall if we do not begin to help those students that are now becoming an increasing percentage of our student body succeed — if we continue to let them fall through the cracks.”

During a panel following Santiago’s keynote address moderated by Betty Medina Lichtenstein, the executive director of Enlace de Familias, panelists discussed what Puerto Ricans on the mainland could do to advocate for their communities both socially and politically. 

“If we don’t know the story, the history, the background, the roots about why individuals are not participating around voting, then what are we doing to become more informed?” asked Vanessa Pabon-Hernandez, director of community engagement and education at WGBY.

“Our narratives are going to empower the truths and empower people to be able to move forward,” said Springfield City Councilor Adam Gómez.

Echoing what panelists and speakers discussed were attendees, including Lory Santiago, who said there needed to be more education around the challenges Puerto Ricans face and that summits like these were a start.

Do people really not know about Puerto Rico? she asked. “Or are they not trying to know? Ignorance is a choice.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 


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