“Pero ¿cuál es tu contribución?” But how will you contribute? We sat at the dining room table adornada con latas de atún, aguacate, lechosa, limones, botellas de agua,velas…velones de esos de la botánica y libros con paginas del color amarrillo tono “you might need my words someday” . I think it was approximately day three post huracan María. No había energía eléctrica pero sugiero que si había luz. There was no electricity but there was an endless supply of thinking to be done and in the company of someone as introspective and intellectually developed as Dr. María Elba Torres Muñoz there was an endless supply of conversation. There I sat, in the wooden chair, a newly admitted student into the graduate studies program in Estudios Hispánicos en la Universidad de Puerto Rico Rio Piedras, three books to my left and three cans of tuna to my right and María Elba directly in front of me. I had made it and I had her undivided attention. We began to brainstorm about the characteristics of an academic career and how as black afro descendant women we have a responsibility to intersect our education with our people at the institutional and community level. “En el barrio, desde el barrio, en la academia con respeto para el barrio.” Me imagino que se podría decir que Dr. Torres helps me and her other students to grow with her wit, pressing concern and golden wisdom. I concluded from our conversation about my goals, my contribution as an academic that I must act with intention and responsibility.
Dr. María Elba Torres Muñoz is many things, but an exclusive academic she is not. In November of 2015 thousands flocked to Puerto Rico from Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States and even Western African countries to take part in the five day long “Primer Congreso de Afrodescendencia en Puerto Rico”.. This conference was a series of talks and workshops in which over 5000 attendees took part in crucial discussions about decolonizing processes, tradition, spirituality, natural sciences, movements for racial equality, and representation of blackness, hosted by Dr. María Elba Torres, which exceptionally exceeded the expectations of even Dr. Torres herself. However, the most redundant critique regarding the conference was the presumed lack of accessibility due to it being held within the walls of a university which has proven to be just as racist as any government institution in Puerto Rico. While the conference wasn’t held at a chinchorro or a discoteca which are perfectly fine places to talk about blackness as well, it was held in a place that is in dire need of spaces for black radicalism, La Universidad de Puerto Rico. The conference, unlike most political conferences in Puerto Rico was completely casual, open to the public, provided free food and drink, and was completely free of cost. Additionally, the intellectual participants such as government officials from Colombia and Mexico, authors, founders of renowned organizations were completely approachable for everyone who attended. In a university such as UPRRP where the Hispanic Studies department is in the building dedicated to Antonio S. Pedreira, one of the most racist Puerto Ricans to ever live, work like that of Dr. Torres and the others who participated in the execution, organization and collaboration of a conference committed to revolution in the black diaspora is redefines blackness outside of white gaze and white supremacy which is the first step to recognizing autonomy for black people.
The critique about accessibility at the conference prompted me to question my participation in “academia” or more specifically as a black racially marginalized subject seeking higher education within a white system. It seems contradictory until we challenge ourselves to recall. The tradition of universities was first practiced in Fez Morrocco, Africa in the year 859 A.D. Additionally our African ancestors had very many spiritual traditions which involve divination and hereby thousand-year-old oddunes or “wisdoms” and ifnormation vital to our conciousness just as philisophy, biology, psychology and literature. We must recall that academia nor knowledge nor understanding are white concepts, in their purest forms. Academia has been hijacked by whiteness, white supremacy and capitalism which use it in a non-natural way to expand class warfare. The reality in Puerto Rico’s university system is that the 11 campus University of Puerto Rico is the only public university which prefers students who had the privilege to study in private schools rather than public schools which typically omits black (negros evidentemente negros) students from entering because it is a privilege that not very many evidently black Puerto Ricans have. La Upi arguably has the most experienced professors bot only for their academic careers, however also for their expertise on the subjects they teach and their contributions to Puerto Rican society. The other institutions of higher learning in Puerto Rico are private schools that can often be more than double the tuition of the University of Puerto Rico hereby not accessible to every Puerto Rican child who wants an education. When we remember that intelligence is at its very essence black tradition, we can become like Dr. Torres who has traveled to numerous public schools in Puerto Rico to work with young black students who hope to study at the University of Puerto Rico. When these young people are rejected for reasons that don’t involve academic ability and prerequisite, reason unknown, Dr. Torres has taken it upon herself to work directly with the admissions office in favor of these applicants, in favor of an institution that must work towards racial equity to remain standing in this mostly afro descendant country. Through this work, Dr. Torres reminds myself and other black “intellectuals” who have made it to the institutions such as University of Puerto Rico that with the privileges that education rewards come responsibility to our people, our community.
Dr. Torres was raised in the coastal neighborhood called Juana Matos in the town of Catano by her mother who had recently arrived Puerto Rico from Cuernavaca, Mexico and her father a natural born resident of Catano, Puerto Rico. Juana Matos is mangle, swamp and during Dr. Torres youth it was rural, almost completely isolated, the houses were wooden, and the surrounding areas were sugarcane fields. Not much has changed. When she was 18, Dr. Torres would wake up to the sound of gallos at 4 am to get to class by foot, by boat and by foot again or sometimes by bicycle by 8:00 am at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras. It was a nine-mile trek through parts of towns where black women were often kidnapped and raped by the newly arrived white US American soldiers that actively controlled San Juan with their abusive and violent presence. The Torres family has fortunately had an extensive tradition of uplifting their community which even today is still stricken with economic poverty under the racialized capitalism that exists in Puerto Rico. The father of Dr. María Elba Torres, Dr. Placido Torres was one of the first black medical doctors in 1940s and 1950s Puerto Rico who tended to patients often free of charge that were living in a community that wasn’t visited by doctors. It is to no surprise that Dr. Torres upholds her family tradition of recalling her original self and working to uplift those who held her during her childhood. In the wake of Hurricane María, Dr. Torres has formed an alliance with three organizations to bring solar energy to the completely devastated historically black neighborhood where she was raised. (insert link: https://www.generosity.com/emergencies-fundraising/solar-energy-for-puerto-rico-s-juana-matos )
Dr. María Elba Torres Muñoz serves the community of Puerto Rico, the community of Juana Matos, Cataño, her students and mentees and the community of the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras as an exemplary personification of revolutionary blackness in white supremacist academia. We learn from Dr. Torres that a black person who seeks to educate themselves inside of an academic praxis that has been hijacked by white supremacy must regard their education with intention and responsibility towards black revolution otherwise they might as well be white.
Dr. Torres is an intellectual, an academic, a community organizer and in every space, she enters be it in Puerto Rico giving students from New York University a three-week hands on seminar about art and public policy or Mexico where she discusses the plight of blackness in Latin America as a doctoral graduate from UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico), a proud black woman who works with intention and assumes the responsibility that she has socially, intellectually and institutionally. How will you contribute may be a question we ask ourselves as we dig into thesis writing and doctoral or masters investigations but contributions at the academic level for black people everywhere must be intersectional with black radicalism and inclusive of community. Dr. Torres reminds us that Black radicalism only truly exists within academia when it also exists outside of academia through the same channels.
The Second Conference on Afrodescendance in Puerto Rico is scheduled to take place at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras in August of 2018. For more information please contact us through: email@example.com
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