Documenting the Puerto Rican Experience in the 20th and 21st centuries
Imagine if you will conceiving of a project that would document the Puerto Rican experience across the United States… Imagine further that this project would be undertaken by someone who is widely respected as an advocate for these people, and that this person, in addition, is a first-rate photographer…
Now let’s say that this project, by some extraordinary miracle, were to get funded, that all the doors open, and that across the continental United States, in Hawaii and in Puerto Rico, over 140 oral histories were recorded, beautiful and moving images were captured, and that a traveling exhibition as well as a book were to result from this project; that in the end a comprehensive and moving portrait of a people was produced.
Such a project, you’d be right to think, is rare in its conception, and the likelihood of accomplishing such a vast and complex undertaking would seem to be very small indeed. And yet, this is exactly what has happened. For those of you who do not know, The Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project was conceived of by my father, Frank Espada. His proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities was funded, the photographs were taken, the oral histories recorded between 1979 and 1981; this exhibition then traveled for fifteen years throughout the United States and Hawaii, as well as to Puerto Rico; and, in 2007 an award winning book of photographs and narratives was published with the title, The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People. This last stroke of good fortune only happened as a result of a generous gift from a lifelong friend and ally of my father’s.
Scholars and students both of the modern Latino and Puerto Rican experience are basing their deep research in every case on the labors of those who have come before them and done the work, with vision, with passion and with skill. No one would deny that the finished work of those who have come before us is the cornerstone of any comprehensive scholarship we would do today.
In the interviews, Frank would almost always begin by asking people to tell how they got here, and in turn, more often than not, they would start by telling their family’s stories. In that way, from multiple angles, the entire 20th century’s history was covered. Modern scholars could do no better than to base their efforts on achievements such as this.
For more on the background of this work, see also A Sketch of Frank Espada’s Life