“Pueblo que olvida su pasado no alcanzará nunca la grandeza de sus fines.” - José De Diego
In my life, there is no political work that I have internalized the most than that of taking the leadership of Que Ondee Sola (QOS) and the Union for Puerto Rican Students (UPRS) at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU). In high school I dreamed of and aspired to be a part of an organization that actively engaged, head-on, the socio-political issues facing the Puerto Rican community. I also sought-out a space in which critical reflection on inequalities and colonialism was encouraged, celebrated, and discussed. I found this when I walked in the office of QOS in the fall of 2005, which left an undeniable mark on my existence.
Among the staff of the magazine, there were diverse characters and personalities: poets and activists, intellectuals and cultural workers. Above all, there existed a youthful exuberance and zeal. This manifested itself in protests and initiatives designed to build a more humanizing discourse and space for Boricuas, Mexicans, and other Latinas/os on campus. The first activity I participated in with QOS, UPRS, and ChiMexLa (Chicano Mexicano Latino Student Union) serves as a prime example. A dozen of us organized a silent march, dressed in black and with our mouths taped-shut, through the various public venues of NEIU. Two or more people carried a black-painted cardboard coffin; all theatrics to raise consciousness on the militarization of communities of color and our Latin American homelands. In hindsight, I ask myself: how effective was this in actually changing the situation? Miniscule, of course! Nonetheless, we effectively confronted and challenged the issue, brought it to the forefront of students’ minds, and instilled among us the notion that complacency is not an option. To struggle, to envision, to make a presence - how small a contribution it may seem - can be stepping stones to more tangible goals.
As a publication we thus had a responsibility to embody the very values that we critiqued our society for lacking. As editor, I ensured the continuation of a legacy of publishing what was rarely published anywhere else: the voices of the subaltern, the marginalized, the invisible. We did this in subtle ways, such as making it a point to always write “Latina/o” instead of “Latino” or even “Latino/a,” as a nonconformist gesture to gendered and sexist language. In more explicit ways, we published yearly an edition - as tradition dictates - dedicated entirely to the experiences and contributions of Puerto Rican and Latina/o women. We also covered the multiple manifestations of Puerto Rico’s colonial situation, the campaign to free the Puerto Rican political prisoners, the unfolding events of the immigration movement, and the progressive and left-wing struggles of our Latin American compatriotas. In addition - outside of tradition but in accordance with the magazine’s philosophical foundation and mission - we dedicated entire editions to the story of Puerto Ricans, Latinas/os, and Latin Americans of African descent. We also reserved editions to highlight the varied contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Boricuas and Latinas/os. This was all done utilizing a critical framework. To the extent possible we sought not to essentialize our cultural identities and historical experiences. We presented them with nuance and complexity, beauty and dignity, but never shying away from affirming our national identity.
Whatever we did in our publication we certainly carried into our organizing work on campus. The two most important QOS-led initiatives - torches set fire by generations before us - were to transform the Latino and Latin American Studies program (LLAS) into a major and construct a Latina/o Cultural & Resource Center (LCRC). When I entered the university, these topics were rarely discussed outside the offices of QOS or that of sympathetic faculty. I could not count how many times university administrators personally told me, “no, we cannot have a LCRC, there’s no funding or space, and, besides, its exclusionary.” It is undeniable that our yearly Plantando Semillas event, campus forums, magazine editorials, surveys, and meetings with faculty, staff, and elected officials made a LCRC possible. I remember an occasion when the university leadership organized a forum to discuss a multicultural center and had to cancel it for lack of attendance while simultaneously we organized fifty students - Black, White, and Latina/o - to discuss and gain support for a LCRC. The administration even sent a student representative to hear what we had to say.
We got LLAS to be a major but did not get our full vision of a LCRC. We wanted to concentrate the current Latina/o-focused resources and cultural initiatives on campus in a single space (visible resources beg not to be forgotten or bulldozed, which was the unfortunate fate of the Office for Adult and Women’s Services). This included offices for Latina/o-focused student organizations, LLAS, Proyecto Pa’Lante, and ENLACE, with classrooms. We did, however, open a pandora’s box. Students and faculty are now clamouring for a LGBTQ and Women’s Center and the main campus has a stronger Black student presence than ever before. It is up to the next generation of QOS and UPRS to ensure that we get a fully realized LCRC, for it is just and right. May the pages of QOS and the historical memory of student struggle, which this organization transmits so well, speak the truth and set the path.
Struggle is never romantic. It is draining, time-consuming, annoying, threatening, but not romantic. It is, however, cathartic, prophetic, and valuable. In an oppressive and dehumanizing context, to struggle is to construct meaning and community. Thus, to struggle is to envision what seems impossible: a liberated future.
“Thus, to struggle is to envision what seems impossible: a liberated future.“
Originally published in Que Ondee Sola magazine's 40th anniversary edition, April 2012