March 02, 2017
My University of Puerto Rico, My Home
By Ana Portnoy Brimmer
I remember feeding stale pieces of pan sobao’ (1) to the ducks and fish in the ponds by the rector’s house at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez. I was about six years old, and my sister and I loved going to the University with my father, a Mathematics professor, whenever he had to work on the weekends or during the summer. The ducks would follow us around, eager to be the chosen ones to receive the colmado (2) delicacy, the fish swimming in circles like underwater hawks waiting for their prey.
My parents, born and raised in Mexico City, had decided to move the family to Puerto Rico (my father was offered a faculty position at the University), and our first year was a disaster: there was a problem with my parents’ visas, and we were forced to leave for Mexico, where we stayed for six months before being able to return to Puerto Rico.
I remember picking mangoes at the University in June and July, my fingers sticky with the sweetness of their juice, the gaps between my teeth clogged with their stringy fiber. I remember playing in my dad’s office, pretending to pick up the phone and grade exams, to hold office hours and answer students’ questions (never imagining that being a university professor would become one of the most uncertain and precarious professions). At a time when my family was starting to settle down in Puerto Rico, when we were still renting apartments and moving around, finding our niche in this Caribbean Archipelago, the University was one of the first places I called home.
I remember learning how to drive in the empty parking lot, area blanca (3) of UPR-Mayagüez on Sundays. How my father’s hands quivered, his knuckles white and tight around the hand rail on the roof of the car; how mangoes were a constant threat to the windshield; how the narrow streets and avenues of the campus became a part of my geographic memory.
I remember being accepted into UPR-Mayagüez (El Colegio) as a Psychology Major, and immediately switching over to the English Department the following semester to study Literature, what I’d wanted from the start.
I remember the exquisite struggle, how all the building blocks I’d stacked neatly in high school came tumbling down as I relearned how to think, how to read, how to ask questions, unable to believe that I actually thought I knew how to do these before. A socio-political awakening coursed through me as I realized the potential and power of literature and writing as agents of change, as community consolidators, as socially-committed devices, and as handy tools in pressing struggles.
I remember becoming aware that I’d lost my peace of mind forever, critical thinking and a hyper-awareness becoming my life-long roommates.
I remember the beginning of my biggest love affair, which is still going on to this day; how I would spend hours with it in the hallways of Chardón (4), court it endlessly by the revolutionary benches of La Placita (5), take romantic strolls with it under the 199 species of trees on campus. Poetry and I have been inseparable ever since.
I remember watching professors turn to mentors, to colleagues, to friends; how authority was never a privilege they exerted or felt entitled to, how meaningful and enduring collaborations arose from four years of sharing a classroom.
And now, as a Master’s student of Literature at UPR-Río Piedras, I know.
I know the University of Puerto Rico is the only public higher education institution in our Archipelago, and that more than half of its student body comes from the public school system; that accessibility is a part of its philosophy, that its gates aim to be open to all sectors of our society.
And what’s better is that I know that even with its successes and failures in this respect, the UPR has the potential of reaching higher, of becoming the epitome of public education; of being fully accessible, inclusive and nondiscriminatory; of considering all of the pertinent intersections in our society; of combating -isms and -phobias; of providing a truly emancipatory and liberating education; of being a space where ideas can be explored, pursued and challenged.
I know that the University of Puerto Rico has some of the most dedicated and passionate faculty members on the Archipelago. That despite the precarious, adjunct state of a ridiculous amount of professors, despite the seemingly impossible task of securing a foreseeable future, despite the lack of health care and benefits, despite the absence of bureaucratic recognition and appreciation, UPR faculty members take on the world and beyond, their students, research and projects, and social-commitment unconditionally aflame.
I know that UPR students are the first ones to stand up against injustices done to them, to the institution and to the people of Puerto Rico; that they are the first ones to defend the university as a center of resistance against political wrongdoings, the first ones to protect al pueblo (6) from abusive impositions, the first ones to safeguard Puerto Rico from greedy and deceitful policies and projects. I know that, once they graduate, UPR students go on to be leaders and professionals in their fields, making meaningful contributions to society, no matter where they are.
I know that the UPR has a beautiful history of community service and outreach: that PREVÉN provides family planning for the general public; that the Legal Assistance Clinic provides legal aid para el pueblo; that Proyecto Huertos Escolares educates on sustainable agriculture by helping to establish vegetable gardens in schools; that el Centro Universitario para el Acceso helps low-income students gain access to and graduate from the University of Puerto Rico; that Presencias organizes free cultural events for anyone and everyone to attend; the list goes on and on.
And I know that if the budget cuts proposed by the Fiscal Control Board and the government are implemented, that if we allow our university to be nit-picked and degraded, that if we don’t push back against the abusive impositions being forced upon us, that if we allow ourselves to be shackled to a debt unaudited and not ours, that if we stop serving al pueblo Puertorriqueño (7) and start attending to the oppressive whims of those in power, there will be nothing left to remember.
And I know that I want to remember my University of Puerto Rico, and how I want to remember it: struggling, strong, free.
I often return to the ponds by the rectors house in UPR-Mayagüez, watching shadows of my 6 year-old self playing with the 4 o’clock sunlight. I sit down by one of the sky-scraping royal palms, listening to distant echoes of my sister’s laughter, to my father playing music in his office and settling into his chair (into our new life), to the plop of bread chunks falling into murky, green waters.
My eyes lost to the 78 year-old cracks and stains of Monzón (8), to the living history, to the breathing memory of this University, my University, I clasp my hands together, fingers feeling for reassurance, hoping that there will be a next time, that I’ll be able to come home again.
Image credits: Duck pond photo by Arturo Portnoy; Clock tower photo by Ana Portnoy Brimmer.
- Puerto Rican lard bread
- Local grocery store
- White zone/area, designated for student parking
- The Humanities Building of UPR-Mayagüez
- A plaza in front of the Humanities Building (Chardón) in UPR-Mayagüez, famous for the artistic/cultural/politically-charged events that take place in it.
- The people
- The Puerto Rican people
- Luis M. Monzón, Mathematical Sciences Building