Puerto Rican Leadership Rises
By Kate O'Brien-Nicholson
1st November 2021
Puerto Rican Heritage Month 2021
By Angel Garcia, author of THE KINGDOM BEGAN IN PUERTO RICO: NEIL CONNOLLY’S PRIESTHOOD IN THE SOUTH BRONX
By 1959, a year after Neil Connolly entered the very Puerto Rican parish of St. Athanasius in the Hunts Point-Longwood neighborhood of the southeast Bronx, there were 162 signers-on to a full-page New York Times ad denouncing gang violence. They called on New Yorkers everywhere not to blame them as recent migrants for the violence surge that had captured the attention of politicians, media, institutions, and individual residents alike. Those signers-on were not individuals, but organizations – Puerto Rican-community-focused organizations, mostly Puerto Rican-led, from all of New York’s boroughs. Representing a broad range of constituencies – taxi drivers, bodegas, social workers, labor unions, churches, social clubs, political clubs, youth services, employment services, tenants, homeowners, blocks, women’s groups, educational services, and print and broadcast media – the signers had demonstrated two levels of leadership.
In just the ten to twelve years since the post-war Gran Migracion began to flood the largest city in the United States with Puerto Ricans – full American citizens with different skin colors, language, faith tradition, food, music, and cultural characteristics and historical realities than the established New Yorkers – Puerto Ricans came together and assumed leadership by forming local organizations around their common interests, needs, and values. But with this open letter to the people of New York, the Puerto Ricans assumed a second level of leadership by bringing those organizations together, across neighborhood and interest boundaries, to express themselves before the city and its institutions and leaders, demanding attention to their perspective. Puerto Ricans are here, have been organizing their small communities to address problems, they said, and they are here to seek recognition of their position regarding a leading cause of community destruction. Among those Puerto Rican-focused organizations signing on? St. Athanasius parish.
It was in St. Athanasius, and about two dozen parishes in the Bronx that eventually came to understand the experience of “going Spanish” during the 1950’s to 1970’s – when Puerto Ricans, as part of the great “push” and “pull” forces of migration within New York City, such as the white flight of the 1950’s and the displacement of Puerto Ricans from other parts of the city into the Bronx by urban renewal and public housing – that Puerto Ricans were given different opportunities to lead. Where they were given the greatest opportunities, particularly after the Second Vatican Council opened up the Church to new languages and cultural expression, to parish councils, and ministries and, perhaps most importantly, to its role in changing the world, Puerto Ricans took on even greater positions of responsibility within the Church.
The Kingdom Began In Puerto Rico: Neil Connolly’s Priesthood in the South Bronx (Fordham University Press) tells the story of a priest who took the institution of the New York Catholic Church, first as a single parish and then as a collection of priests and finally, as a South Bronx wide Catholic Association, and brought it as close as possible to the Puerto Rican people who filled its pews by the tens of thousands during that time period. After an intensive summer immersion period that began his priesthood in Puerto Rico, a period of “De-Yankeefication” and “Puerto Ricanization,” Connolly threw himself into his mission of serving the people where they were, and of building faith communities led by them and community centers led by them, reaching them in their homes after decades where island Puerto Ricans rarely saw their local priests.
After living with them during the “unholy trinity” of the 1960’s-era social epidemics experienced by his parishioners and neighbors- drugs, crime, and poverty – Connolly then struggled to support them during the 1960’s- and 1970’s-era epidemic of wholesales housing neglect and abandonment that ravaged entire neighborhoods. After fighting government institutions over their neglect of these communities, Connolly created an environment where the people themselves led on community issues, bringing community organizing and conflict and pressure tactics as truly Christian approaches that Puerto Rican Catholics could be comfortable with. Over that entire period, from 1958 to 1985, his commitment to the people of the South Bronx parishes provided the means by which they could lead, both in the Church and the World, and prove their dignity and worth, against the national and local public and private sector powers, even in the poorest Congressional District in the United States.
The organizations created by the Puerto Rican leaders in the 1950’s who signed that 1959 letter were right: Puerto Ricans would rise as a citywide community to the occasion, given the need to do so. Even in a Church that did not initially receive the Puerto Rican migration with open arms, the Puerto Ricans would also rise to the occasion as a Church community, and help bring that Church into the World.
Angel Garcia was a community organizer and Executive Director of South Bronx People for Change, a Church-based direct action and membership organization co-founded by Fr. Connolly. Born in Puerto Rico, and a graduate of Regis High School, Princeton University, and Pace University, Garcia is a long-term resident of the South Bronx and has been active on social justice issues and worker cooperatives.
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