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by Laura Corona, University of Illinois student 

The 2014 Pa’lante Conference kicked off on Monday, April 7th with a lively and passionate presentation by Chicago Prisoner Rights Lawyer, Jan Susler, and her focus on the case of Oscar Lopez Rivera. Susler spoke about his incarceration not only as a symbol of struggle for the Puerto Rican community, but how it also highlights human rights violations within the US prison system. Susler was followed by Oscars’s niece, Lourdes Lugo Lopez, donning a t-shirt with his image. Both Susler and Lugo Lopez urged the audience to take their knowledge of the situation and turn it into action, citing the petition of the National Boricua Human Rights Network (http://boricuahumanrights.org/). The discussion ended with the speakers confident in Oscar’s release, and the ultimate joy it will bring to Puerto Ricans and human rights activists.

That afternoon, former Chicago Alderman and now 11-term Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez read excerpts from his book, Still Dreaming: From the Barrio to Capitol Hill. His excerpts served as a reflection on his status as a U.S.-born Puerto Rican, and how that excluded him culturally from both the island and full acceptance in the U.S., and ultimately feeling like an outsider on both lands. Congressman Gutierrez has fought for the rights of immigrants and the working class, and he emphasized the right and responsibility of the Latino vote.

On Tuesday, April 8th, we hosted a light but philosophical panel discussion with past Union for Puerto Rican Students (UPRS) Presidents. The discussion covered the ideas that UPRS shifted to a much more feminine approach, considering that many of its members were woman, and grew more active in the Latina community. Each panel member discussed their struggles and stories within UPRS.

On Wednesday, April 9th, the Rafael Cintron Ortiz Latino Cultural Center was graced with the presence of one of the men who envisioned its conception: UIC alum, Edwin Cortes. When I think of a community organizer and political prisoner, I would not have imagined such a gentle and thoughtful man as Edwin. He reflected on the Latino youth activism at UIC which fought for a Latino Studies department, a Latino college recruitment program, and a dedicated physical space for Latinos at the University. Today, we enjoy all of these services, and should not take them for granted. Edwin pointed out the great inequality of the large Latino population at UIC, compared to the miniscule representation we have in student government. As a lifelong political and community activist, Edwin advocates for sustainability and ownership of our culture both locally at UIC (as student involvement efforts are facing severe budget cuts), but also on a global level.

On Thursday, April 10, a group of seniors from Roberto Clemente Community Academy and Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School came to UIC to shadow current UIC students. Most of the high school seniors had already applied or been accepted to UIC, and this day was a great opportunity for them to live a day on campus. The group toured the dorms, computer labs, cafeterias, bowling alley, library, recreation facility, and writing center, all on the East Campus. The Shadow Day allowed current UIC students to share what they loved most about the campus, and what they wished they had known as incoming freshmen.

That evening we hosted Noche de Poetas, and were honored to hear from two very talented performers. The first was Emanuel Emilio Cruz, an incredibly talented Puerto Rican- born singer and songwriter. This was his first visit to Chicago, and he was so impressed with the tight knit Latino and Puerto Rican communities at UIC and the Humboldt Park neighborhoods. He was followed by female rapper Pinqy Rinq, a Chicago native and also UIC alum! Pinqy Rinq performed several of her powerful and moving works which touched on the themes of cultural pride, personal identity, femi- nism, sexual abuse victims and survivors, and battling the national media portrayal of Latinos and crime in Chicago. We closed the night with a reading of a group poem that was written line by line by the attendants. The end result was utterly remarkable: a single cry of many voices rejoicing over the trials and tribulations of our communities, and toasting to our permanent presence and future prosperity.

On the last day of the conference, Friday, April 11th, prominent Puerto Rican lawyer and scholar, Jose Enrique Ayora Santaliz gave a lecture celebrating the life and accomplishments of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos. Albizu Campos is recognized widely for his politics and leading the Puerto Rican independence movement, but Jose’s lecture was more commemorative than academic. Jose praised Don Pedro as the “voice of conscience”. Born under terrible circumstances, Albizu Campos met the early 1900s as an illegitmate son, poor, black, and orphaned at the age of 4. He attended school and was quickly identified as a child prodigy. He went on to study chemistry at the University of Vermont, and later Mastered in Law, Philosophy, and Military sciences at Harvard. Upon graduation, he moved back to the island and lived well below his means with his equally intelligent Peruvian wife. They chose to educate their fellow Puerto Ricans on island history, and gave free lectures in the outdoor plazas to children and adults about the great leaders and fighters of Puerto Rico and Latin America. Jose asked us to tip our hats to this great man, “El Maestro”, for his everlasting contributions.