A Hunter College Center & Archives

She didn’t know much about her father. After all, she was only five years old when her parents divorced, and she was barely 11 when he died in his native Puerto Rico.

Nelida Perez and Felix Matos Rodriguez
Nelida Perez and Felix Matos Rodriguez of CENTRO
But Paulette Zalduondo-Henriquez was always curious about him. What was his birth date? Where did he grow up? Where did his family live?

So when Centro—as the Center for Puerto Rican Studies is familiarly known on the Hunter College campus—recently made some 45,000 personal ID cards from the government of Puerto Rico available to the public, Zalduondo-Henriquez decided to search for her roots.
After combing through the Center’s voluminous record books, she asked for three or four files on people whose last name was Zalduondo, hoping that one of them would contain information about the man she had always known as George Zalduondo.

“I hit Eureka,” she says excitedly, adding that she found his file during her first search. “I only vaguely remembered him. I had seen some pictures of him, but there were things I didn’t know and that my mother didn’t know.”

Guys playing dominos
A “casita” in East Harlem.
What she discovered added important information to her family history. According to the ID, which was dated 1955, Jorge—not George—Zalduondo came to New York City from Fajardo, on the northeastern tip of Puerto Rico. The man who would marry Paula Sanchez-Reyes, a seamstress who came to Manhattan from Puerto Rico in 1946 when she was 14, was a maitre’d in a restaurant, and his people came from Luquillo, not far from Fajardo.
“I never even knew he had a middle name,” she says, “or that he changed the spelling of his first name.”

Zalduondo-Henriquez, who works part-time in the office of Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, is one of hundreds of people of Puerto Rican heritage who have used the ID cards to find missing ancestors.

“It is moving to see people connect with their history,” says Nelida Perez, head librarian and archivist for Centro. “The IDs have photos, and this is sometimes the first time they have ever seen one of their relatives.”

The IDs—which were issued by the government of Puerto Rico’s Migration Division Office from the 1930s to the 1990s—were used as proof of U.S. citizenship. In addition to a black-and-white photograph of the applicant, each ID includes name, birth date, birth place, physical description including weight and height and eye, hair and skin color, occupation, New York City address, Puerto Rican address, fingerprints, and the name of a sponsor. A variety of documents, including birth certificates and baptismal certificates, are also attached.

Green” identification card from 1942
Identification Cards
Dr. Felix V. Matos Rodriguez, director of Centro, says that the IDs, which were billed as a service to migrants, actually helped them get jobs. “They were voluntary,” he says. “It is significant that they began in the 1930s, when there was a massive campaign of deportation of Mexicans from the U. S. This was also a time of anti-immigrant sentiment in the nation, and these IDs allowed the Puerto Ricans to prove who they were.”

In addition to helping visitors to the Centro archives fill out the branches on their family trees, the IDs, Matos Rodriguez says, “document the rich variety of people who came to New York, the regions they came from, and their work backgrounds. They offer rich testimony to how complex the Puerto Rican migration was.”

Centro’s archival holdings include about 90 discrete collections and more than 5,000 cubic feet of material, including records of such major institutions and community organizations as the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the United Bronx Parents Association.

Also in Centro’s archives are papers of elected officials, community activists, labor leaders, writers, and artists. Notable among these personal collections are those of Oscar Garcia Rivera, the first Puerto Rican in the nation to be elected to public office, Pura Belpré, a writer and folklorist and the first Puerto Rican librarian to work for the N.Y.P.L., Antonia Pantoja, an educator and founder of several local and national Puerto Rican organizations, and Clemente Soto Velez, a leading 20th-century Puerto Rican poet.

The jewel in Centro’s crown are its records of the Migration Division of the Government of Puerto Rico, probably the largest collection of migration-related materials in the U.S. These records, which Centro is nearly finished processing, document more than 60 years of Puerto Rican activity in New York and other regions.

In addition, Centro houses more than 25,000 images, including the Justo A. Martí collection, which consists of more than 10,000 images of Puerto Rican and Latino life in New York City during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Martí was a Cuban photographer who captured life in the city for El Diario/La Prensa from his studio in Brooklyn.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies is reached through the main entrance to the Hunter College Library, on the third floor of the East Building, at Lexington and 68th Street.
Documenting the diaspora is the mission of Centro, which, with its 5,000 linear feet of archival materials and 40,000 vintage photographs, is the world’s only repository dedicated exclusively to the subject. It also is the third largest Latino repository in the country (the two larger ones are at Stanford University and the University of Texas at Austin).

The migration, which started in the 19th century and accelerated after World War I, peaked after the Second World War, which is when Zalduondo-Henriquez’ parents came to New York. “There were economic factors that led to this,” Matos Rodriguez says. “The U.S. economy was able to absorb laborers, and there also was a restructuring of the economy in Puerto Rico, where traditional agricultural jobs were disappearing.”

Added to these incentives, Matos Rodriguez says, were the lifting of air travel restrictions after World War II and the government of Puerto Rico’s beginning to take an active role in linking U.S. factory owners with farm workers on the island.

Perez says that it is important for people like Zalduondo-Henriquez to use Centro to uncover their heritage because “our migration experience serves as a comparison with other migrant and immigrant groups. We laid the groundwork as a Latino group for migrants who came after us. We made contributions economically and culturally. It’s important for people to know what we are about.”

Last year, Centro’s archives—the IDs, plus reports, correspondence, photos, posters, news releases, radio broadcasts, brochures and circulars, fliers, files of organizations, case files and various publications—were used by more than 500 researchers and its library by more 12,500 visitors.

In addition to making the community more aware of Centro’s resources, Matos Rodriguez is working to make the documents more accessible by putting them

on the Internet. He hopes visitors to the Centro web site will be able to search its files and download copies. “There is a huge need in the public school system for access to this information,” he believes. “It’s a real tragedy that they don’t have it.”

Having the records on the Internet also will make it easier for Centro to expand its work with and strengthen its bonds with Puerto Rican organizations, many of which have donated their records to the archives.

For instance, Centro is providing research assistance to Community Works, a non-profit group that has an after-school program in which students are producing a videotape and booklet to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Casita Maria, the oldest Latino/Puerto Rican social services organization in the city.

“It’s crucial that Centro’s records be used or be available,” Matos Rodriguez says. “Projects like Casita Maria are music to my ears.”

Centro Garners State Archives Award
Early in September, the Board of Regents and the New York State Archives announced from Albany that the Center for Puerto Rican Studies has received the second annual Debra E. Bernhardt Archives Award for Excellence in Document-ing New York History.

The 2002 award commends the library for ensuring that the history of the Puerto Rican community in New York is preserved and also recognizes the Center’s strong outreach program.

The award is named after the former director of the Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, an advocate for documenting the history of groups traditionally omitted from the historical record.

Dr. Felix Matos Rodríguez and Nelida Perez accepted the Center’s award at the State Education Department in Albany on October

Another example of Centro’s outreach is the Clement Soto Velez Cultural Center, a consortium of cultural organizations on the Lower East Side. (It is named for one of the 20th century’s most famous Puerto Rican poets.) Centro was able to help out the Velez Center by donating redundant copies of the poet’s works to the group to be sold at a fund-raiser.

But of all the services the Centro library and archives provide, it is the genealogical research that really hits home. Every story, and there are hundreds each year, is a moving, personal bit of history that Centro has made come alive.

In fact, Matos Rodriguez, like many who make Centro visits, is piecing together his family’s story through the ID files. So far, he has discovered three of his mother’s uncles there. “They were all Merchant Marines, and I guess needed to prove that they were citizens to get jobs during World War II,” he says.

As for Zalduondo-Henriquez, the rest of the story of her past has yet to play out fully. The next time she goes to Puerto Rico, she will see the cities of Luquillo and Fajardo with new eyes. Although she had to wait a half century after her birth to find out the answers to questions about her family history, her children are far luckier. At 16 and 12, they have a clearer picture of Jorge Zalduondo, the grandfather they never knew and the father that their mother barely knew. “They were fascinated to see a picture of him,” she says, “and I can see where there is some resemblance that touched them.”

Contents October 2002

From High School Dropout to Surgeon General – Thanks to BCC

Extending the Lifespan of Learning

The Bronx: A Thriving River Runs Through It

Chancellor's Message: Celebrating CUNY Poets

Two Bills for CUNY Signed by Governor

Colleges Set Out Welcome Mats For First “CUNY Week” Outreach

New Technology: Two Conferences

Celebrating the Pleasures of Literature

The Public and Private Lives of Eleanor Roosevelt

Capturing the Life of a Complex General

TV Boot Camp Gives Students Taste of “60 Minutes” Magic

Big Cats' Novels Change America

Imagining Hopper

New Stars in Faculty Firmament

John Jay Law Enforcement News Honored for Articles on 9/11

Preserving the History of the Puerto Rican Diaspora

Vigils, Bells, Art, Eloquence—and Silence: Campuses Observe September 11

Three WTC Workers from City Tech Receive Scholarships

Future Holds New Home, New Master’s for CUNY’s School of Architecture

N.J. State Human Resources Executive Comes to CUNY

Hostos Goes Electronic on the Grand Concourse

New Shuttle Service Eases Lehman Commute

Leap in Fall Enrollment

CUNY Board Adopts State Early Retirement Plan