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The Latino perspective: Silvestrini examines concepts of citizenship
(April 12, 1999)

hen a group of Puerto Ricans from the Western states and Hawaii gathered in San Jose, Calif., to organize their political efforts, they tried to arrange to have their meeting in a public park. But they came up against a wall of city regulations which, in effect, denied the validity of such a gathering because they had no charter and no board of directors.

Spotlight on New Faculty

The group, which considered themselves a cultural community of like-minded citizens, held its meeting in a vacant lot, but were left feeling again like outsiders. The regulations seemed not to take into account a different idea of community, one which did not meet the standards set up the majority.

For Blanca Silvestrini, professor of history, who tells the story, it is a familiar example of the kind of cultural and social disjunctions that Latinos often face in this country. Though they may be citizens with all the legal privileges that entails, Latinos still have a sense of being outsiders because of their culture. These issues are what Silvestrini's research is all about.

During April, the University observes Latino Awareness Month, focusing on the largest ethnic group in the U.S.

Silvestrini is the newest scholar on campus specializing in Latino subjects, specifically those of her native Puerto Rico. She came to UConn in September 1998 from the University of Puerto Rico, where she had been teaching since 1973 and most recently was vice president for academic affairs.

She says one of the things that attracted her to UConn was the Dodd Center's collection of Puerto Rican material which, she says, is the largest and best collection of Puerto Rican material on the mainland. She adds that a former professor of history at UConn, Francisco Scarano, had been instrumental in helping the University obtain a large private collection of such material. In addition, the University has a well established Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies and the Institute of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies.

No stranger to the mainland, Silvestrini has spent time at Stanford where she obtained a J.S.M. degree in 1990 and where she was a visiting professor of law for two years and a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. She has also been a visiting scholar at Harvard and a doctoral teaching fellow at SUNY-Albany.

Her range of research interests is wide: socio-cultural changes in the Spanish Caribbean from 1880-1940, gender history, the history of public health and tropical medicine, and other aspects of the intersection of law and society.

The issue of "cultural citizenship," a term coined by a group of Latino scholars to describe the kinds of issues illustrated by the story of Puerto Ricans in San Jose, is a recent focus. Silvestrini says that cultural citizenship issues "bring my two interests in law and history together."

Claims of citizenship
If there is a common theme in all her work throughout her career, it might be that of participatory citizenship, how people empower themselves to try to define and change the world they live in. These efforts can take many forms.

As a young scholar just beginning her post-graduate work, Silvestrini first was drawn to women's issues. "I was interested in the impact of the social processes that began when women first began to work in factories in Puerto Rico," she explains. "New industries - many were American companies, particularly in textiles and tobacco - were the first to hire women." Employment outside the home led women to assert themselves and to claim more of a voice in the community. Silvestrini has documented the changes in women's lives and the changes they made in such fields as public health in Puerto Rico.

She has continued to follow social movements in Puerto Rico, with a discerning eye for the significant changes in the way people live, and has now expanded that examination to the migrant communities of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos living on the U.S. mainland. While living in California, she observed that the Puerto Rican groups in mainland cities were largely "an invisible community."

Although Puerto Ricans have been American citizens since 1917, when Puerto Rico became a territory of the U.S., they had little political power. Only in recent years have they begun to assert claims to have their culture respected and acknowledged by the majority. Silvestrini calls this "an expansion of citizenship, an attempt to define the community and the nation."

Her most recent work, The World We Enter When Claiming Rights, published by Beacon Press, examines the various ways that Latinos have become more socially and politically assertive.

She gives another example from San Jose: a campaign to allow grandparents to visit the schools their grandchildren attend. Rules previously limited school visits to parents only. In Latino culture grandparents play a more dominant role in the family than is usually the case with the majority group.

Since coming to Connecticut, Silvestrini has begun to make contact with teachers and others who work in the Puerto Rican community in Hartford and hopes to establish ties there.

Communicating history
Silvestrini has a strong commitment to elementary school education that began when her two sons, now grown, were in school. Both disliked history and, after looking at their history books, she understood why. It led her to write a series of six books on Puerto Rican history, using a story-telling style and events from local history to convey the larger history of the island.

The books are still used in Puerto Rican schools. "I think it is the thing I'm proudest of all my work," she says. Silvestrini is also the author of Historia de Puerto Rico: Trayectoria de un pueblo, published in 1987, which is considered the standard history of the island.

In her first year at UConn, Silvestrini, who is now teaching an undergraduate course on the history of the Spanish Caribbean and a graduate seminar, has been working with other faculty in the field of Latin American and Caribbean studies to organize the many disparate courses on Latino subjects into a more systematic sequence for the next two years.

She also helped the Benton Museum to obtain some of the santos from Puerto Rico now on exhibit. She has been in demand for conferences and speaking engagements, and recently gave talks at Trinity and Yale.

What she likes best, however, is "the quiet, the time in the library, the time to think and to write. Writing is my favorite thing in the world."

Diane Cox

This article is one in a series celebrating April as Latino Awareness Month.