Acción Puertorriqueña and Divisions among Puerto Ricans at Princeton

By Mario Garcia ’18

Founded in 1972, Acción Puertorriqueña—later known as Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos—was a student group initially consisting of Puerto Rican undergraduates and later allies who sought to create spaces for Puerto Rican cultures on Princeton’s campus through cultural events and student-led activism. Such celebratory events included the beginnings of Latino Graduation in 1990 and National Hispanic Heritage Month in 1989 as commemorations of the experiences of Princeton students descending from Latin American ancestry, while activist initiatives included lobbying for seminars related to Puerto Rican histories and recruitment programs for Puerto Rican students in the 1970s as strategies for empowering Puerto Rican communities on campus.

Event flyer, 1981. Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342), Box 1.

As members struggled to realize different visions of Acción Puertorriqueña, some challenged the notion that the group had a responsibility to tackle social issues affecting Puerto Rican communities. In doing so, they tackled larger questions concerning the roles that student-led cultural groups should play in both creating spaces for celebration of their heritages and challenging institutional barriers that their communities face on campus.

Event flyer, undated. Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342), Box 1.

Exemplifying one such challenge, efforts by members of the student organization to address racism against Puerto Ricans met with various criticisms. Quoted in the Daily Princetonian in May 1983, a member of Acción Puertorriqueña sought to critique what he viewed as a tendency of many other members to magnify the role that racial difference played in their lives, “‘They are so aware of the term “being a minority”,’ said Jose Lopez-Cepero ’83.”

I think “minority” is a state of mind. If you feel you are inferior to someone, then you call yourself a minority, but don’t come to my room and tell me I am one of you guys, because I don’t feel that way.

He felt that, by engaging in activism that expressed the concerns of Puerto Rican students relating to their minority status, these members had taken the cultural group in an undesirable direction that strayed from its role of promoting social unity within the Puerto Rican community on Princeton’s campus.

Headline from the Daily Princetonian, April 29, 1988.

In response to Lopez-Cepero’s claims, fellow Acción Puertorriqueña member Annette M. Segura ’84 countered that “‘Minority’ is as much a ‘state of mind’ as Jose Lopez-Cepero’s provincialism is; to wit: both are lamentable states of being.'” Segura contested Lopez-Cepero’s claim as ignorant of the racially-charged challenges that many Puerto Ricans face in the mainland United States. Segura emphasized this point later in the article when she pointed out the fact that mainland Puerto Ricans had lived a harsh reality of marginalization in the United States,

Is it reasonable to expect mainland Puerto Ricans not to have developed an awareness of their painful situation, having been manipulated and discriminated against for nearly a century?

She thus argued that since its inception the organization had emphasized activism as a means of drawing attention to issues facing Puerto Rican communities, and that it had continued its activism as homage to its roots. Furthermore, Segura contested that the pushback against Puerto Rican activism concerning racial issues stemmed from tensions between islanders and mainlanders: while Puerto Rican mainlanders often viewed activism as fundamental to Acción Puertorriqueña’s mission, Puerto Rican islanders often challenged the organization’s participation in political issues. This ideological conflict between Lopez-Cepero and Segura epitomized that which strained Acción Puertorriqueña as a whole in the mid-1980s.

Pamphlet, undated. Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342), Box 1.

In response to the arguments presented in the Daily Princetonian article, the board of Acción Puertorriqueña issued a statement in 1983 denying these characterizations of the Puerto Rican community on campus. Board members declared that,

We want to make it clear here that as far as we are concerned there is no such thing as “low class people”…the Prince is erroneous in attempting to put the issue as a matter of islander-conservative vs. mainlander-radical. It is ludicrous to try to separate people into just two blocks.

They sought to portray the group as inclusive of both mainlanders and islanders; nevertheless, the Daily Princetonian article did point out the fact that only Puerto Ricans from the island constituted the board. These members countered by asserting that this gap in representation led them to work even more intentionally on representing the needs of mainlanders. “The May 6 Prince article states that our ‘potential nemesis’ lies in the fact that there are no mainlanders on our Board. It is precisely this point that makes us consider the needs of the people that are not ‘represented’ even more.” Ignoring the different experiences that Puerto Ricans face in the continental United States, this claim indicates that the islander board members thought of themselves as able to represent the needs of mainland Puerto Ricans.

By the end of the decade, the student group would continue to employ rhetorical support of all Puerto Ricans regardless of their respective backgrounds; however, it did so in a way that minimalized difference among Puerto Ricans. On February 10, 1989, Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos affirmed its founding mission of supporting both diasporic Puerto Ricans from the mainland United States and native Puerto Ricans from the island in a report highlighting that year’s accomplishments. Such accomplishments included a pina colada social event, which “helped to lay the groundwork for one of Accion’s main purposes, being a support group for the Puerto Ricans from both the Mainland and the Island and for anyone who wants to become an ‘amigo,'” and a panel of speakers, which consisted of “several speakers from both the Island and the Mainland.”

Event flyer, 1986. Carl Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342), Box 1.

Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos settled its conflicts by seeking to incorporate all Puerto Ricans into the group’s activities, but it did so without intentional recognition and distinction of the diversity of experiences across Puerto Rican communities. This report presented mainland Puerto Ricans and island Puerto Ricans as homogeneous in their needs rather than as distinct in the experiences they face throughout the United States. Such homogeneous portrayals of its Puerto Rican membership perpetuated the misconception that Acción Puertorriqueña could engage in activism that sufficiently addressed the different needs of both mainlanders and islanders.

Sources:

Acción Puertorriqueña y Amigos website

Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding Records (AC342)

Daily Princetonian

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