Puerto Ricans chart progressive agenda

BRONX, N.Y. – More than 250 Puerto Rican activists and leaders met here “to discuss the state of our communities” and to begin the development of a “progressive political agenda” for Puerto Ricans in 2004. The Boricua Roundtable met at Hostos Community College on May 21-22.

A major theme of the meeting was mobilizing the Puerto Rican vote against the ultra-right in the White House and in Congress.

New York State Assemblyman José Rivera said, “We are not going to let them rob us of another election” nor let the Supreme Court “impose” a president. “We have every intention of rescuing the White House,” he said.

The three Puerto Rican members of Congress – Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) and José Serrano (D-N.Y.) – participated in a panel on key issues facing Puerto Ricans today.

Rep. Gutiérrez blasted the Bush administration’s war policies, urging the participants to discuss opposing the war in Iraq and “its impact on our community.”

“We don’t want to die in a declared or undeclared war started by a president that wasn’t elected by the people,” he said.

Gutiérrez also called on the activists to work in solidarity with all Latin Americans, including recent immigrants, as a way of affirming “our Puerto Rican-ness.”

Rep. Velázquez said the disparities in Bush’s economic policies shows the U.S. is at war not only in Iraq, but also “against the poor.”

“They need to cut Medicare and Medicaid to finance the war,” she said, noting that 44 million people have no medical insurance, “half of them Black or Latinos.” She stressed the need to fight on working-class issues, declaring, “When I fight for working families, I fight for Puerto Ricans.”

Velázquez didn’t let her own party off the hook, saying it was important to make sure that “John Kerry embraces the Puerto Rican agenda.” She publicly demanded that the Kerry campaign put a Puerto Rican or Latino deputy at its top levels to better articulate and advocate for Latino issues.

She called on everyone present to organize the Puerto Rican vote to defeat Bush, noting there are sizable populations of voting-age Puerto Ricans in key states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Arizona.

Rep. Serrano suggested organizing “freedom rides” to Orlando, Fla., to register Puerto Rican voters. The Puerto Rican population in Florida has almost doubled from 1990 to 2000, according to the U.S. Census, and much of that growth is centered in the Orlando area. Florida is now the state with the second highest Puerto Rican population in the country after New York.

Angelo Falcón, senior policy executive of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (PRLDEF), noted that demographic changes in Florida will “offset the conservative Cuban vote and gives the Puerto Rican vote a greater national significance.”

José García, also from PRLDEF, unveiled plans to form a progressive “Encuentro eMagazine” on the Internet that would have a Latino perspective based on the Puerto Rican experience. In a criticism of some political leaders, he called on those present to “retake the name of progressive agenda and movement” to once again have “politics of community, instead of politics of self-aggrandizement.”

Ida Castro, chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under Clinton, spoke about the strength and resiliency of Puerto Ricans, reminding people that “For 100 years they have tried to make us something we are not” through assimilation into the American nation. The rejection by Puerto Ricans of the term “Puerto Rican-American” is evidence of their self-awareness of being a separate nation.

Addressing concerns of some progressives about Kerry, Castro said, “Puerto Ricans must participate to change his thinking later.”

José López, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago, described registering Latino voters in his city based on two issues – support for Rep. Gutiérrez’ bill in favor of undocumented immigrants, and demanding the U.S. Navy clean up the toxins left over from more than 60 years of live ammunition bombing practices on the Puerto Rican island-municipality of Vieques.

The meeting adopted a resolution denouncing the war in Iraq and another demanding the U.S. Navy clean up and reconstruct Vieques.

The Boricua Roundtable ended with the singing of the anti-imperialist version of the Puerto Rican national anthem – La Borinqueña.

The author can be reached at j.a.cruz@comcast.net.click here for Spanish text