Ph.D. Student Gisely Colón López on the Struggle for Puerto Rican Studies

Gisely Colón López (Photo courtesy of Colón López)

By Beth Harpaz

A new film, Making the Impossible Possible, chronicles the student-led struggle to create a Puerto Rican Studies department at Brooklyn College in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Through archival footage and interviews, the film shows how student activism led to the founding of one of the first Puerto Rican studies departments at any college in the country. 

The film’s producers include Gisely Colón López, a Brooklyn College alumna who’s now a first-year Graduate Center Ph.D. student in Urban Education. She says her work on the film, which included doing research, gathering archival material, and coordinating interviews, gave her “new insights and perspectives about history and the preservation of history. It was very important for this story to be told from the experiences of those that lived it, further aligning with my own philosophy as a researcher-educator to surface voices, specifically student voices.”

Colón López’s own journey is a remarkable one. Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, she moved to New York at age 2. She spoke no English when she started school while growing up in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, then went on to become the first in her family to get a college degree. But her path wasn’t easy. She started at Hostos Community College, then took classes at several other CUNY campuses. She eventually applied to Brooklyn College but was rejected twice because she’d previously failed several courses. Once she got her associate’s degree, BC accepted her. She ultimately graduated as class salutatorian

She calls her experience in BC’s Puerto Rican and Latino Studies (PRLS) department “transformative.” She learned about her ancestral history and worked with female Puerto Rican educators for the first time. When she started at CUNY, she didn’t even know what a Ph.D. was, but by the time she had her bachelor’s degree, she was set on graduate school. Before starting at The Graduate Center, she earned a master’s degree from the University of Connecticut-Storrs, chronicling, for her thesis there, the evolution of Puerto Rican studies at BC as a major contributor to the field of Latinx studies. 

Central to her doctoral work is creating open access resources and materials. As a student curator for the CUNY Digital History Archive collection, she’s concentrating on research related to the founding of Brooklyn College’s Puerto Rican Studies program. She’s also a member of the Alliance for Puerto Rican Education and Empowerment (APREE), which produced and coordinated efforts for Making the Impossible Possible

Colón López hopes the film will inspire viewers to see that “individuals and organizations can activate and amplify their voices to create and achieve what may have been believed to not be possible.” She worries that the survival of Puerto Rican and other ethnic studies programs at CUNY and elsewhere is threatened by potential “consolidation and absorption into homogenized programs, centers, or institutes,” and also hopes the film will be part of a larger movement to preserve these disciplines. 

One of the most inspiring aspects of the film was how Black, Puerto Rican, and even white and Jewish students, faculty, and administrators worked together to demand more diversity and representation. At the time, Brooklyn College was predominantly white, Jewish, and middle class, but “students resisted accepting this as the norm,” Colón López said. “They organized themselves, and joined or created student clubs, such as the Puerto Rican Alliance, to begin recruiting more students from their neighborhoods, while also mobilizing themselves by engaging in acts of protest and civil disobedience to make campus more reflective and responsive to the diversity present within New York City.” 

Those goals “attracted like-minded students who did not identify as Black or Puerto Rican, but who felt connected to the struggle and understood the value of learning history beyond the Eurocentric gaze,” she said

Colón López worries that “student voices, agency, and mutually beneficial community integration have been diminished because of institutional policies and restrictions” compared to 50 years ago. She asks that people “be critical” of how programs that were once student-led operate today: “Do students have equitable access to decision-making roles in the same ways that students did during the 1960s and ’70s? Is the community outside of the academic walls present within departments, programs, or institutes? What role do they have in supporting the educational preparation of students while also assuring a reciprocal relationship with neighborhoods and residents?”

Colón López’s co-producers were filmmakers Tami Gold, a Hunter College professor, and Hunter alumna Pam Sporn. The 33-minute movie can be booked for screenings via its distributor, Third World Newsreel. Screenings are also announced by APREE

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: FEB 26, 2021

Category: Diversity | GCstories | General GC News | Student News | Urban Education | Voices of the GC