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The Queens College Summer Program 1972-1974: Oh Yes We Did!

While enjoying a Knicks game in the early 1990s with two young Boricua lawyers I ventured to ask during halftime as to what prompted the pursuit of their profession. Armando and Pedro both smiled as we sipped on our beers. Armando responded. The answer that came out of his mouth blew my mind and moved me into the pursuit of the present project. He said that in 1972, while still a high school student, he attended a summer program at Queens College that changed his life and set him on the path to both educational and professional success. When I informed him that I was one of the founding members of that program, we shared a high five and laughed in mutual appreciation. Afterwards I wondered how many “Armandos” there must be who were equally influenced by that idealistic, committed group of Boricua students at Queens College in 1972. And wouldn’t it be great, as well as important, if we could document this incredible chapter in the history of the Puerto Rican community in New York City.

As happens far too often, the history of a people is left to the griots, the great story tellers of the oral tradition. This is fine and dandy in small tight knit traditional cultures. But in modern, technologically advanced societies if it is not stored and archived  it tends to get lost. And so it is with the stories of the second generation of post-Operation Bootstrap Boricuas who were forced to forge an identity amid the turbulent civil rights decades of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The accomplishments of the communities and organizations that battled during this period are nothing short of remarkable. They sprouted forth leaders in all areas of American society, education, medicine, law and others (not least of which is the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor to the highest court in the land). There are hundreds of good stories of that era that need to be documented that can serve as both inspiration as well as teachable moments to the Boricua and the Latino community at large. And it is with this precisely in mind that we bring you the story of the establishment of The Queens College Summer Program.

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s was a very dynamic time to be part of the CUNY experience. For one, we were breaking down invisible walls that had tacitly held us out of a university that was completely free. Year after year places like City College in Harlem would celebrate spring with graduation ceremonies, surrounded by communities of color who would wistfully look on and applaud when they could occasionally spot one of their own among the throng, sporting the cap and gown. For most of us the idea that we could actually aspire to a college education wasn’t the stuff of conversation around the dinner table.

Things would change as the experienced leaders of the community focused their attention on the apparent contradictions of a university that was free for everyone but us. After a “mysterious” fire nearly burned down the registrar’s office at City College in 1968, serious talks finally began regarding the real integration of CUNY. It was at these meetings between the community leaders and the Administration that the ideas of College Discovery and the SEEK program  were born—the first to be implemented at the community college level and the latter at the senior institutions.

The framework for both these programs was the understanding that if our students were going to succeed in the pursuit of a higher education we would require both academic and financial support in order to address inequities spawned by generations of neglect and racism. Written into the guidelines were long hours of non-credit-bearing remediation courses five days per week for up to a year or more. In order for this to work the organizers insisted upon a sufficient stipend for each student so he or she would not to have to work and interrupt the study process. The CUNY administrators were betting that the burden of long hours with no credit would eventually discourage and dishearten the new student population and that many who had dropped out in high school would quit once again. They were mistaken.

There were at least two factors conspiring against CUNY’s hidden agenda. The first cannot be overstated. The year was 1968 and the cosmic call of "No Más" had the planet spinning faster and becoming more interconnected than ever before. Mexico City, Czechoslovakia, Paris, Vietnam Nam were all in the news, demonstrating that those at the bottom would insist on being heard. At home, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and a host of others alerted everyone that matters of freedom and self-expression were dead serious.

The second element that enhanced the tenacity of the new students of color entering CUNY was the wide range of their personal experiences. Apart from those of us who entered SEEK and College Discovery straight out of high school, there was a significant contingent of older students who were Vietnam vets as well as others who had survived the urban wars and were already in their thirties. This made the education process unique in that many of the most important lessons took place outside the classroom, at the feet of these seasoned mentors.

Queens College is considered one of the jewels of the CUNY system. So one can imagine what it was like back in 1968. It resembled the line from the classic “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri: “Queens, clean cut lily white neighborhood, Puerto Ricanless scene…” When the SEEK program arrived at Queens it was perceived like the fly that flew into the milk. There was actually an attempt by a large group of students to forcibly remove us from the campus. With the battle tested grit of Vietnam vet and the street gang experience present in our ranks, it turned out to be a painful mistake on their part.

In the meantime, organizing was the order of the day. In the communities the Young Lords would take the lead. An umbrella organization called P.R.S.U. (Puerto Rican Student Union) was formed with chapters at most of the campuses. At Queens College one of the older community organizers from the South Bronx named Carlos Calderon would found La Union Estudiantil Pedro Albizu Campos (UEPAC), which would become one of the strongest and most progressive groups in the student movement.

At this point we would be remiss if we did not mention one of the key architects of the Queens College Summer Program. Jesus “Al” Santiago was an older military vet with an uncanny knowledge of human languages. Clearly a genius, while still a student he was recruited to teach Yoruba in the SEEK program and later would travel the world setting up computer languages for countries as far away as Japan. Al was so highly respected that he actually developed a personal relationship with the President of the college, Dr. Joseph P. Murphy. Murphy had headed the Peace Corps in Africa and later would become chancellor of CUNY. He would prove to be an invaluable aid in our efforts to create the program.

Ramón Serrano, 1972.

We were busy making our presence felt on the Queens College campus promoting such issues as Puerto Rican studies, more Latino faculty, a greater role for Puerto Ricans in the SEEK administration, etc. But the overriding question would always linger: How could we guarantee an increase in our numbers at this institution? Al Santiago came to the rescue when he hatched the idea of UEPAC sponsoring a summer institute at Queens College for Puerto Rican high school students.

Once the idea was introduced at one of our general weekly meetings, it took off as if it had a life of its’ own. The confluence of so many determined spirits and active minds all in one place produced a whirlwind of energy that led to the development of this program in a span of merely six months. This particular group would produce teachers, lawyers, judges, doctors, as well as many other professionals.

Committees were immediately formed to deal with the myriad of tasks that would have to come together like a complex tapestry for us to succeed. For example, how were we going to get the word out? We developed a questionnaire under the auspices of the Urban Studies Department, chaired by the popular feminist Dr. Marilyn Gitell. It was comprised of a series of twenty questions regarding the educational aspirations of Boricua high school students. The sponsorship of an academic department served as a passport into the city’s schools and allowed us to have direct access to our target population.

A curriculum committee was formed with a two-pronged objective: a) what would be the focus of our teachings once the students arrived? And b) how do we train the members of our organization in the pedagogical skills necessary to impart this information. For this we were fortunate to have some of the SEEK faculty volunteer their time to teach us such basic skills as lesson planning and modes of inquiry relevant to a high school audience. As for the actual curriculum, language arts with an emphasis on bilingualism and Puerto Rican history and culture would provide the core. We made sure to include a weekly dose of theater, music and art from the rich reservoir of Latino talent that is New York City. Sometimes it might take the form of a workshop on the art of drumming, while at other times it could include a live performance from one of the greats, such as Pedro Pietri.

Somehow we came up with the number of 350 high school students as participants. But how were we going to insure that they would come? At the time a popular alternative to young people hanging out during the summer and creating mischief was the Youth Services Agency. Each summer organizations throughout the city would provide jobs  and employ youth in all manner of civil services in return for a small stipend. The city would also provide lunch to some of these sites, delivered in trucks.

Along with the successful organizing, it’s difficult to discount the power of serendipity. It couples nicely with the concept that it is possible to create your own reality. It just so happened that at that very moment the city hired Jack Agüeros, a well known poet and Puerto Rican community activist, to head the Youth Services Agency. A meeting was immediately convened with Mr. Agüeros where he was convinced that our project is worthy of having Queens College designated the summer program as an official job. At this meeting we also arrange for the college students to get the stipend as well. We then gave Mr. Agüeros a list of all the high school students we had interviewed in order to make sure that they would be assigned to our program.

After six months of nonstop organizing and meetings (we even met on Saturdays and Sundays at Carlos Calderon’s apartment in the South Bronx) we were very close to our goal. We had also managed to get our message across on channel 41, the Spanish-language TV station. Santiago Grevi was a popular talk show host and someone arranged for us to be interviewed on the air. It seemed that all the pieces were finally falling into place, all except one.

It was two weeks before the program was about to begin and we still had not secured the issue of transportation for the 350 enrollees that we had registered. Further complicating the issue was the fact that the Queens College campus in Flushing is located in what was then a two fare zone. This meant that we would need 1,400 tokens daily for a period of six weeks. If we could not pull this last rabbit out of the hat all of our efforts would have gone for naught. That eerie feeling of desperation was beginning to crawl up our collective spine.

With the opening of the program, just two Mondays away, bearing down on us like an approaching avalanche, we were at a meeting on the campus on a Friday afternoon. In the middle of a brainstorming session on the issue of transportation, Carmen Rivera, one of the many dynamic Boricua women in the organization, today an ordained minister, got up and screamed in frustration “We still don’t have the 'bleeping' tokens.” (Bless me Father, for I have sinned). In a moment of stunned silence someone reminded us of the fact that Dr. Joseph Monserrat has just been elected president of the Board of Education. A Puerto Rican heading the largest Board of Education in the U.S.A. Serendipity strikes. Instantly a light bulb went on, spreading across the entire room. We have to go see Dr. Monserrat. When? Right Now.

A group of five of us jumped into the only vehicle available, a Volkswagen bug driven by Norma Ruiz, today a New York State Supreme Court judge. We had no appointment or knowledge whether Dr. Monserrat would be in his office at 110 Livingston Street in Brooklyn when we arrived. On a Friday afternoon in June, approaching rush hour, we navigated from Queens to downtown Brooklyn. We miraculously found a parking spot and headed for our destination. On the way, meandering through thousands of folks anxious to begin their weekend, we ran into a friend of Norma Ruiz who is a practicing attorney. We quickly explained our mission and he decided to join us, figuring we may be in need of legal counsel before the day is up.

For the uninitiated, 110 Livingston St. is a monstrosity of a building that occupies an entire city block. Its tenant at the time also had the notorious reputation of being one of the most inefficient bureaucracies on the planet. It is over 16 stories and was ground zero for the business of New York City’s Board of Education.

We entered the immense lobby that always seems to resemble the waiting area at Grand Central Station, with hundreds of people bustling to and fro. We asked at the information desk and we were advised that Dr. Monserrat’s office is on the 12th floor. Easy enough. We approached one of the large banks of elevators and found out that only one stops on the twelfth floor, and for that one, a special pass is required. We move to the side to contemplate our next move (It should be remembered that during this historical period guerilla tactics were very much in vogue). Norma Ruiz came up with the brilliant suggestion that we take the elevator to the thirteenth floor and see if we might gain access via the stairwell.

We exited the elevator on the thirteenth floor and, as casual as possible, began the process of going down wherever we saw an exit sign, hoping that a door on the twelfth floor would be open. The area is about a few football fields in length, dotted with hundreds of cubicles. Finally, Bingo! One of us returned with the news that a door on the twelfth floor was open. We headed down the stairs.

We took a deep breath and pushed open the door just enough to notice a large Latino police officer sitting at a desk in front of an elevator. He was leaning back reading a newspaper with his feet up with his shoes off. We decided we would rush by him and spread out, hoping to attract enough attention to force a meeting with Monserrat. If not, we were willing to get arrested, figuring that the publicity might get us the desired results. At this point we had nothing to lose.

We ran by the startled police officer who screamed at us to stop. We didn’t get too far before we were corralled by a group of Latino administrators in white shirts and ties. The embarrassed police officer was flushed and breathing hard as he awaited his orders. We spit out as fast as we could our need to see Dr. Monserrat. To our surprise one of the men present told us to wait and that he would be right back. He returned and to our amazement informed us that Dr. Monserrat had agreed to meet, but with only one of us. The group elected me as the spokesperson.

I was ushered into a huge office at the end of which was an enormous oak desk. As I approached in my jeans, long hair, sneakers and Queens College sweatshirt—war garb of the period—I felt myself being X-rayed by a highly polished man with silver hair, an impeccable white shirt and black horned rimmed glasses. Dr. Monserrat was a seasoned, professional bureaucrat with a demeanor of superiority that attempts to convince you that his methane is odorless. I immediately congratulated him on his recent appointment, extended my hand, which he ignored, and took a seat, which he did not offer. He wasted no time and asked me what we wanted. After a brief explanation, he picked up the phone, inquired again how much transportation we needed, repeated it to the person on the other side, then handed me a piece of paper with a name and address where we could pick up transportation vouchers. The man never smiled.

The final piece of the puzzle was now in place. The program would begin as planned, in two weeks. But the logistics of implementation on a daily basis would prove to be a hefty challenge. We met resistance to our presence inside the college, as well as outside. Some days token booth clerks would refuse to honor our vouchers, leading to a few tense and dangerous moments during the morning rush hour. At other times insensitive staff and administrators at the college would attempt to thwart our efforts. There are so many stories within the story of how we managed to overcome these obstacles and persevere. But in the end we were able to provide a glimpse of a college environment to many who might never have dreamed of the possibility.

The program was such a success that we were able to repeat it again the following year. As many as a thousand young Latinos were touched in one way or another by our enterprise. Later the program would be used as a model for other attempts to increase the numbers of underrepresented youth at institutions of higher learning. In a very specific case, one of the participating faculty members of our program, Dr. Manuel Febres, would take the model to Puerto Rico. He organized the McNair Project with a focus on increasing the percentage of economically marginalized Puerto Rican college students in the graduate programs. The results were a resounding success.

On a final note, what cannot be lost in the telling of this story is the fact that the entire enterprise was entirely student conceived, organized and supervised. I’m sure forty-plus years later when progressive movements have been almost totally defanged it is difficult to imagine such a scenario. For instance we chose and supervised the faculty members that participated. We accepted resumes and conducted interviews. What bolstered our confidence was an international student movement that at home was led by such groups as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The former insisted upon students having a voice in all aspects of the university decision making process, and the latter was involved in voter registration and challenging the Jim Crow racist establishment in the Deep South. National student strikes, closing down such elite institutions as Berkeley and Columbia, were quite common place. Within this environment, the fact that we were in charge of our own destiny felt quite natural.

In conclusion, one might ask what the lessons are from our experiences that are now over forty years old. Many a time when we recount our stories to a younger generation we are met with the wistful response: “I wish I had lived during those times.” What is lost in this exchange is a sense of historical perspective. The history of social struggle has been analyzed by many social scientists to take the form of a pendulum, with progressive movements arising more or less in cycles of thirty years. In the U.S. we can begin with the victories of a rising urban middle class against the monopolies and trusts at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thirty years later in the midst of the economic collapse called the Great Depression, the dispossessed and unemployed would militantly organize and force the passage of the New Deal, legislation that formed the basis for today’s safety net; in thirty more years the civil rights movement would coalesce with the anti-war movement and the feminists’ demands, profiling the decade of the tumultuous ‘60s.

But we did use the image of the pendulum and as is the case in any struggle, the pendulum swung and the powerful forces that control the economic and political engine of the society also organized. and in between these thirty year spasms of reform, methodically attempted to erode all that has been gained. And so it is that we are presently in a time of retrenchment. The distribution of wealth has been once again skewed in favor of the one percent. Wages and collective bargaining rights have taken a beating. The idea of a college education is becoming, once again, only an option for the privileged as tuitions continue to rise unabated.

The Occupy Wall Street movement provided a glimmer of what a modern mass movement might look like. Much more work as far as coalition building among progressives is still primary on the agenda. With respect to college admissions, the issue of demographics in the U.S.A. is starting to raise some interesting questions inside the board rooms of the major universities. The fact that by the year 2060 people of color will constitute a majority of the U.S. population raises serious questions with respect to the issue of diversity on the individual campuses. Do we continue to recruit elite foreign students, or do we address the moral as well as political issue of the underserved at home? And if we are going to attempt to integrate the disadvantaged within our own country, how do we proceed? In this case the Queens College Summer Program might serve as a model going forward.

© Ramón Serrano. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 17 September 2014.