By María Isabel Molestina
I was honored to meet Pedro Juan Hernández for the very first time when I discovered the amazing Doña Pura Belpré in February 2017 by pure happenstance – you wouldn’t believe what Google knows! For those who haven’t heard of her, Pura Belpré was the very first Puerto Rican ever to work at the New York Public Library in the early 1920’s. She was a children’s librarian, educator, writer, translator, and library advocate – a true pioneer who made every single effort to provide access to library services to the Puerto Rican community in New York City. My first encounter with Pedro Juan, Senior Archivist at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, CUNY (also known as CENTRO), was extremely pleasant and it opened my eyes to all the rich resources the center holds from archival collections to reference books, including correspondence, numerous unpublished manuscripts, photographs, ephemera, and published editions –all related to Pura’s career as a writer, translator, and librarian. The research I conducted at the Center was unmeasurable and gave me the opportunity to participate in the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York annual symposium back in October 2017. I could have not done this without Pedro Juan’s patient guidance and continuous support. Please continue reading below so you can learn more about his amazing career, work, and legacy as a dedicated archivist!
1) Tell us a bit about yourself; how you started working in libraries and archives, what sparked your interest in the profession?
I have always been fascinated with History as a subject of study and I wanted to understand the present by learning from the past. More specifically, I am interested in the history of the ordinary extraordinary women and men throughout the years. As a history major undergraduate and graduate at the University of Puerto Rico, I was required to use primary sources to write academic papers and my master thesis. That led me to visit the Archivo General de Puerto Rico for the first time. I was enchanted with the Archive and was attracted to the archivist work. These unforgettable years influenced me the most and sparked my interest in the archives profession and the history of underrepresented people..
Eventually, I became an archivist and was hired by the Government of Puerto Rico agency in New York to organize and create The Archives of the Puerto Rican Migration (APRM). The archives documented Puerto Rico’s role and official policies regarding Puerto Ricans migration stateside from 1930 to 1980s. This archives development project started in 1989 and we successfully opened it to the public in 1992. Unfortunately, a newly elected government administration dismantled both the agency and the archive in 1993. However, one year later the Center for Puerto Rican Studies (known as Centro) was granted custody of these records and since then they have been available to the public.
On my second job as an archivist, I was working under the supervision of Nélida Pérez, the founder of the Centro Archives, and a professionally trained archivist. She generously shared all her knowledge, introduced me to donors, partners, and supported my archivist professional development. Upon her retirement, I served briefly as the Acting Head Administrator of the Library and Archives from 2005 up to 2008.
2) Would you please describe in detail your role as Senior Archivist at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in the City University of New York (Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños-CENTRO) and your trajectory to this position?
After twelve years working as the Centro archivist, I was promoted to the Senior Archivist position. My work involves collection acquisitions; maintenance and preservation of the archival holdings; assisting in donor relations; securing gift agreements; overseeing collection development; supervising and training project archivists, interns, college assistants and work study students. I also work coordinating with other archivists assigned to oral histories, digital projects and project archivists; assisting in the writing of grant proposals. Finally, I work managing the production of finding aids and other access tools; compiling usage and public service statistics and the creation of in-house data bases; and providing reference support to users of the archives regardless from where they are located.
3) Which are some of the most noteworthy collections housed at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies? How and why were they acquired? Any favorites?
Among the most noteworthy collections, the Jesús Colón Papers, 1901-1974 (bulk 1920-1970) document a visionary pioneer, community leader, labor organizer and prolific writer. This collection has been a favorite of researchers since the archives opened to the public in 1989.
Another important collection, the Archives of the Puerto Rican Migration records, showcased the impact of Puerto Rican migrants stateside. The collection documents the voices and faces of the “ordinary” migrants; the seasonal farm workers; the garment workers; industrial workers; government and elected officials; and those seeking help or requesting to authenticate identification documents or get services from the local government.
Each collection in the archive represents the achievements and struggles of the Puerto Rican diaspora. We hold the papers of Antonia Pantoja and Helen Rodríguez Trías both recipients of the highest civilian national award recognition by the President of the United States respectively in 1996 and 2001. These and other wise Latinas papers are inspiring new generations and paving their way into helping Puerto Rican and other Latino communities. The literary collections showcase the creativity and productivity of distinguished writers and poets. The elected public government official papers depict how they lead the struggle for social changes and justice. The records of major Puerto Rican organizations that made inroads at the national level are represented in the archive as well. Indeed, these archival collections depict Puerto Ricans contribution to the history of this country at all levels.
4) Can you share with us any project or initiative dealing with Latin American or Latino communities?
Throughout the years Centro has been documenting Puerto Ricans stateside. We are the second largest Latino community in the country. Most of our holdings depict other communities as well. For example, we are holding the records of HoMoVisiones, a cable television program dedicated to gay Latino issues and founded by a coalition of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in New York City. We have also been supporting and partnering with other institutions to increase the visibility and significance of our community’s history in the United States.
Among projects, we worked on collaborations with The Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project at the University of Houston. The project consisted in identifying forgotten manuscripts for publication, selecting rare journals and periodicals, and identifying papers for microfilm preservation and dissemination. In 1996, Stanford University and Centro joined forces to arrange and describe the records from MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund) and PRLDEF (Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund). These two complementary Latino collections addressed legal, educational and civil rights matters as they were fighting and advancing equality issues for Latinos in the country. From 2005 to 2008, Centro joined the New York State Archives as partners in the Ventana al pasado: Building a Hispanic/Latino Online Research Collection, a web-based online research collection linking the Latino-related holdings of nine state repositories. The project created catalog records and finding aids for 95 collections and over 3,300 images. The bilingual internet gateway is very important and has helped finding and providing access to Latino resources in New York State.
5) What are some of CENTRO’s initiatives and current projects (exhibitions, digitization, etc.)? Any projects related to Hurricane Maria?
Centro has been very active in creating a safe space, finding venues for the discussion of policy issues and formulating the responses to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis for the last three years. As Hurricane María stroke Puerto Rico on September 20th and caused great devastation, the Center called Puerto Ricans stateside and friends to assist in all ways possible. On October 2017 the Center launched Rebuild Puerto Rico, an online hub to organize the diaspora and allies with all supporting initiatives as well as keeping statistics and sharing information about the impact of this humanitarian crisis.
We also exhibited documents showing how Puerto Ricans stateside historically responded to past natural disasters by showing up acts of solidarity and mobilizing support for Puerto Rico. More recently, the archive launched the Hurricane María Oral History Project to document the experience of those that suffered the aftermath of this natural disaster and the impact in the lives of 175,000 Puerto Rican refugees that have already migrated to the stateside.
6) What is your current research project?
As I am getting close to my retirement, I have been turning my attention to some of the small and medium size collection’s projects we have not finished yet. I would like to update as many finding aids and create many inventory lists before I leave Centro. Definitely, we need to pay attention to the collections backlog and to pass any organizational knowledge I might have to the Library and Archive staff before leaving.
7) How do you envision the fields of Latin American literature, history, and art? (in terms of collection development and outreach). What is your role as archivist when it pertains to researchers interested in studying CENTRO’s collections?
Through the years, the archive has been exclusively devoted to document the Puerto Rican diaspora history and culture. A robust collection development and outreach have contributed to the growth of the archival holdings all these years. Centro librarians and archivists constantly welcome the increasing numbers of scholars and the general public from Puerto Rico, USA and worldwide who conduct research on our holdings. Nowadays, the Library and Archives has a stronger presence and visibility in the internet and beyond. As Centro added a digital collections team, we have increased the number of documents available to the public. As Centro’s senior archivist, I have helped create many resources and research tools that are accessible to broader audiences who wish to study our collections. This also helps to expand the number of users of the collections on-site or via internet. However, there is so much that needs to be done to increase our visibility and dissemination beyond our physical borders at a faster speed.
8) Do you hold any professional memberships? What are the names of those organizations and what is your role?
I have benefitted as a professional member of the Society of American Archivists. The SAA’s many publications and workshops helped me to become an archivist and keep myself well informed about the standards and trends in the field. I also attended workshops and conferences organized by the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conferences (MARAC) and the Metropolitan New York Library Council (METRO) dealing with all areas of professional development. We also participated in several conferences presenting projects we collaborated with other archives and hosted several meetings organized by the Archivist Roundtable of Metropolitan New York (ART) and Reforma New York Chapter in the Centro Library and Archives. Lastly these organizations encouraged us to visit and meet with our colleagues to learn the work and initiatives they care about.
9) What has been the most rewarding (or challenging) aspect of your career, thus far?
I have been very fortunate to work in the Archives documenting the history and culture of Puerto Ricans stateside the last thirty years. Moreover, I got the opportunity to use my history academic background training and archives experience to serve my community and the public by making available these treasures from the past to the new generations.
More specifically, we have been welcoming and engaging our donors, researchers and visitors all the time. This allows us to learn more about the collections and helps expand our knowledge about the collections and new academic trends. The comments and suggestions from our patrons and colleagues help us learn and improve the quality of the services we provide.
I also always find very rewarding to create exhibitions and disseminating the collections to broader audiences.
10) What advice can you give to a Latino/a/x student interested in pursuing a career in archives and special collections?
The Latino/a/x or any bicultural students always bring diversity and a broader perspective to any professional field and to the work environment that we inhabit. That’s why not matter what having a diverse group of professionals is an asset for any archival institution and for our society.
In general my best advice is to be passionate about your work and the many opportunities you will be getting in this stimulating and fascinating profession.