By Carol Amoruso, HAV Editor
Professor Juan Flores plops himself into a swivel chair in his well-ordered office at New York’s Hunter College. Avuncular and with the suggestion of a twinkle about him, he leans back and spins slightly, the first of several moves he’ll make during our hour or so chat, asserting both comfort and command over his vehicle.
We met after a mutual friend tipped me off that he’d be a broad-spectrum interview, a Latino whose world-view was wide, but whose point of return remained Puerto Rico/an.
Flores is Professor of Africana and Puerto Rican – Latino Studies here and of Sociology at the CUNY (City University of New York) Graduate Center. He is former director of CUNY’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Flores’ route to academia was direct, the legacy of his father, an internationally –reputed scholar and professor of Latin American literature. He was raised in Bayside, Queens, homogenously white and middle class then, in the 50s—“There was just me and this one Dominican kid”–but spent a formative year in Mexico, installed at various university towns where his father lectured.
After an undergraduate degree from Queens College and a PhD. from Yale, he went off to Stanford to begin teaching there, an assistant professor of German studies, at 25. Learning German had come at the suggestion of his family, a way to get him off the streets, so to speak. He explains that he became disaffected and bored having to study Spanish in school when he’d grown up with the language. He began drifting until captured by the challenge to read in the original some of the great thinkers of recent Western history: Marx, Freud, and Kafka, for example.
Flores’ years at Stanford coincided with the rise of the Mexican-American movement, and he soon began teaching classes in nascent Mexican-American studies as well. But, by 1975, he’d left the verdancy of Stanford to return to the grit of New York, having at last wiped the sleep from his borincan eyes. He’d been appointed to the burgeoning Centro, founded in 1973.
The Center, or just Centro, established as a research and archival facility, has had a defining role in the establishment, scholarship and orientation of the various Puerto Rican and Latino studies departments throughout the City University system. A colleague recently commented that, although he was somewhat green when he came to Centro, Flores did more to define the institution than did the institution to define him.
He came to Centro, his life’s work more clearly defined; he’d understood that his father, in projecting the literature of continental Latin America, had overshadowed his island nation’s oeuvre and culture. The time had come to “pull my father’s coat,” he says.
He’s been at CUNY ever since, a vast network of 2 and 4-year public colleges and graduate schools open only to NYC residents. It is, for him, a comfortable berth. The majority of the student body is of color, working full-time and/or raising families. It’s a special population, reflecting the mettle of the inner city, tailor-made for Flores, who is committed to foster close ties between the community and higher learning. “It’s a way,” he says, “of validating their lives, their history.”
Centro’s “activist scholarly agenda,” in good part defined by Flores’ years there, has laid the groundwork for much of the scholarship at the various “minority” faculties throughout CUNY. Curriculum has traditionally been based on the study of colonialism and the African presence in Latin America from a colonial’s and not colonialist’s perspective. (Recently, however, under succeeding direction, some of that “activist agenda” has been mollified.)
Flores frames his work around this presence and the complex issue of race and racism in the Americas. Among the racial myths that need to be upturned is that of mestizaje, or the assumption that racism doesn’t exist because “we’re all mixed.” He distills the problem by observing, “Mixture, while it seems it’s open and inclusive and everything like that, actually is very limiting because it privileges the mix and deprivileges the blackness. It takes away from the cogency of an anti-racist struggle.” “I want to continue to work on this Afro dimension of the Latino experience,” he adds. “The Afro-Latinos are the ones who fall through the cracks.”
He is a watchdog of the state of studies in Latino academe as well as his own pedagogy, underscoring two brambled pitfalls: ethnocentrism—especially relevant to Puerto Rican studies at Centro–and becoming stuck in the past, a last refuge of jaded activists. “The biggest challenge is not to be ethnocentric…When you remain anti-imperialist, when you remain for independence [of Puerto Rico]…you remain with the idea that you have to understand a national culture within its own dynamic. But, having said that, you have to resist becoming ethnocentric about it. That turns people off. If there’s a sign of ethnocentrism, people say, ‘Why are you giving so many props to this? Just because that’s what you are?’…You have to be sympathetic with others’ lives and forms of oppression. That’s my goal.”
The great Latino power upheavals rocked the City in the early 70s reverberating with the street politics of the Young Lords, el Comité, etc., and the conjoining of the struggle with the Black Panthers. This history has been the most consistent accreditor of Puerto Rican progressives throughout the city. (At a recent symposium on organizing Latino workers, three of the 7 presenters had been members of the Young Lords Party.) Flores cautions against still basking in those glory days: “It’s a challenge to keep up with the times. People just want to stay stuck in the freeze frame of the 70s…That’s not learning anymore. That’s not about education any more when you stop. When you try to put things at a certain, ‘This is when it was at its peak; this is when it really mattered,’ then it doesn’t mater any more. That’s not education. And it’s not history.”
With the influx of Dominicans and, now, the applecart-upsetting advent of hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans to East Coast, the purview of Latino scholarship at CUNY has had to broaden. Flores suggests that within Latino studies inclusionism and keeping up with the imperatives of the times are essential. “You just can’t act like things are the same they were a generation ago when Puerto Ricans were 80% of the Latinos in New York. [Now] you’re putting the Puerto Rican struggle into the context of hemispheric Latin American struggle and a world-wide one.”
He is much-published, having edited a number of anthologies on Puerto Rican history and society, and has written a critical award-wining essay on one of the island’s “vacas sagradas” (sacred cows), Antonio Pedreira. His seminal book, “From Bomba to Hip Hop”, traces the growth of the Puerto Rican community in the U.S. through the evolution of hybrid culture, with music the touchstone. Music is a defining passion, and Flores is currently ruminating on a next book about the real story of salsa.
His engaged and unorthodox scholarship predicated on the interrelatedness of African and Latino is reminiscent of fellow Yalie, Robert Farris Thompson, the show-stopping chronicler/fantasizer of African retentions in Latino America. Though they spring off a similar base, Flores is more grounded, gives considerably less verbiage to religion/spirituality and, saliently, he is, to the bone, political. Rather than a folk scholar, Flores is a scholar of the folk.
His prose ensconces him augustly in the midst of the academic establishment, using jargon he’s coined as well as culled from his cohorts and reasoning seemingly seeded in his German philosophy days; at the same time, he is readable and comprehensible, textual, but not dry. Flores’ spoken word is every-day and peppered with Spanish modismos, yet weighty. The vernacular of his speech easily converts to irony on the page.
As an academic it has been his ongoing commitment to bring other Latinos to the academy and unseat the intransigent white male establishment. From his chair at Hunter, Flores has been able to take his role as mentor even higher; he is the school’s pointman with the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program. MMUFP is dedicated to identifying PhD. candidates from amongst underrepresented minority students in their freshmen and sophomore years, providing financial support and guidance, leading them on to doctoral candidacies. It’s an exceptional pivot because CUNY is the only urban public university participating amongst 34 member institutions, most of them “elite”.
At the end of the day, however, it’s not history, nor pride, nor activism even, that Flores sees as his obligation as an educator. It’s critical thinking. Flores, defining himself, explains: “I’m trying to keep the field open so you can evaluate the options clearly and the consequences of each option. I try to teach critical thinking. Big time. All the time. It never stops.”