Columbia University Launches New Latino Arts and Activism Archive

Columbia University has announced the launch of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive, a joint initiative of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, with the acquisition of the papers, videos and photographs of pioneering New York Puerto Rican community activist and writer Jack Agüeros. 

The Agüeros Collection, to be housed at Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript library, marks the beginning of the Latino Arts and Activism Archive initiative that seeks to acquire the papers and records of Latinos and Latino organizations in New York that may be of enduring significance as research resources. Areas of principal interest include the arts, politics, and community-based organizations.

"New York has a very rich Latino cultural and political history," says Frances Negrón-Muntaner, director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and a professor of English and comparative literature. "In addition to being an innovative writer, Jack Agüeros was a pivotal figure of New York's Puerto Rican renaissance, a major cultural and political movement in the city in the late 1960s and into the 1980s," she said. "To have these materials enriches our understanding of our present and our past."

Jack Agüeros, who turns 78 on September 2, attended Brooklyn College after serving in the Air Force, spent the 1960s working with a variety of community groups.  He moved from the Office of Economic Opportunity, a federal agency created by President Lyndon Johnson to fight the War on Poverty, to New York City's Community Development Agency (CDA), created by Mayor John Lindsay. As deputy commissioner of CDA, Agüeros was the highest ranking Puerto Rican in the City's administration.  Subsequently, he directed El Museo del Barrio from 1977 to 1986, the preeminent museum of Latino and Caribbean art in the United States, expanding its collection and moving the museum from a Third Avenue storefront to its present location on Fifth Avenue's Museum Mile.

Mr. Agüeros is also a poet, playwright, short-story writer, translator, and author of five books. But while some of Mr. Agüeros's early work was published, notably his essay about growing up in East Harlem, "Halfway to Dick and Jane" (in "The Immigrant Experience," 1971), his first book, "Correspondence Between the Stonehaulers", didn't appear until 1991. His other books of poems include "Lord, Is This a Psalm?" (2002) and "Sonnets from the Puerto Rican" (1996). He is also the translator of "Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos" (1996) and the author of "Dominoes & Other Stories from the Puerto Rican" (1993). Mr. Agüeros has won numerous awards for his writing, including the 2012 Asan World Prize for Poetry, given by the Kumaran Asan Memorial Association of Kaikara in India. 

Materials included in the Agüeros Collection include early versions of his poems, plays and short stories; unfinished manuscripts; newspaper clippings documenting his political activities; documents and slides from his days as director of El Museo; and videos of interviews and readings in the early 2000s. Other highlights include his research about Julia de Burgos, a great 20th century Puerto Rican poet whose poems were compiled and translated by Agüeros.

"Documenting New York is one of the many things we do and documenting that which has not previously been documented is particularly important to us," says Michael Ryan, director of the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library at Columbia University. "It's important that a collection like this live in the context of a premier academic institution." 

The donation reflects the family's strong relationship with Columbia and their desire to make the collection available to a wide audience. Agüeros's daughter, Natalia Agüeros-Macario (GSAS'12), worked at Columbia's Center for Environment, Economy and Society for three years and in May received her master's degree in sustainability management. His youngest son, Marcel Agüeros, is a 1996 graduate of the College, did his post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia and is now an assistant professor of astronomy.  

"For my family, for my dad, the fact that we have this archive, that it's going to be at Columbia and that people will be able to use it for research and to know his work, is wonderful," says Marcel Agüeros.

Mr. Agüeros now suffers from Alzheimer's disease and can no longer write. But he will continue to inspire students, writers, and literary scholars through the collection of papers, videos, and photographs he and his children are donating to the Columbia Libraries.

The Latino Arts and Activism Archive is a joint initiative of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. 

Background on the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race:

Located in the heart of Columbia University, the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race (CSER) is a vibrant teaching, research and public engagement space. The Center's mission is to support and promote the most innovative thinking about race, ethnicity, indigeneity and other categories of difference to better understand their role and impact in modern societies.  Currently, the Center is launching three new Latino studies initiatives starting this fall. In addition to the "Latino Arts and Activism Archive," CSER is supporting "The WomanHOOD Project" a program led by CSER student Amanda Matos that seeks to create a space for high school girls to develop leadership skills and become familiar with several fields of study, including ethnic and gender studies; and the "Latino Studies Speaker Series," a university-wide forum to identify the most exciting research produced in this field today. 

Moreover, the Center is currently working on several Latino studies-related research efforts. The founding study is "Assessing for Change," which offers a sweeping analysis regarding Latino participation in the mainstream media over the last six decades. In addition, the Lab is collaborating with Hispanics in Philanthropy on a brief and video titled "The Bigness of Small: Why Grassroots Latino Groups Make a Difference to LGTB Organizing," which examines the pivotal role that Latino organizations are playing to gain support on key LGBT legislation through a groundbreaking example in Chelsea, Massachusetts.