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Digitizing the Barrio

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PRCC Awarded Three Year Grant to Archive and Digitize Community History

For decades, The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC) had hoped to preserve and archive its history. Now, as the recipient of a three-year, more than $340,000 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), which was made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The PRCC will soon realize this dream and an even more expansive program that will establish  a community archive on the history of Puerto Rican Chicago. 

The highly competitive grant is part of the CLIR’s “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives: Amplifying Unheard Voices” program. This program seeks to “deepen public understanding of the histories of people of color and other communities and populations whose work, experiences, and perspectives have been insufficiently recognized or unattended” (https://www.clir.org/hiddencollections/). 

The PRCC was able to apply for the grant thanks to several years of archival work. In 2018, it launched the Puerto Rican Chicago Archive project, with support from Northwestern University, DePaul University, and the Urban Democracy Lab at New York University. A team of volunteers retrieved dozens and dozens of boxes from insecure locations and began a long inventory process. These efforts uncovered three collections of The PRCC. 

The first collection contains materials from Juan Antonio and Consuelo Lee Corretjer. The PRCC carries the name of Juan Antonio Corretjer, an important historical figure considered the national poet of Puerto Rico. Consuelo Lee was an educator and author. These figures maintained a close relationship with The PRCC and Chicago’s Puerto Rican community from the mid-1970s until their respective deaths in the early 1980s. Items in this collection include personal correspondence, written speeches and essays, poetry books, rare photographs, and funeral programs. 

The second collection includes materials on The PRCC’s numerous programs and projects, such as Vida/SIDA, its pioneering AIDS/HIV prevention and education program; the Consuelo Lee Corretjer Childcare, one of Illinois’ first bilingual childcare programs; the Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos Puerto Rican High School; Batey Urbano, an urban youth theater; annual PRCC festivals, i.e., Fiesta Boricua, the Puerto Rican People’s Parade, and Haunted Paseo Boricua; and the Humboldt Park Participatory Democracy Project, a grassroots anti-displacement initiative. In this collection—the largest in the archive—are barrio newspapers, videos, and photographs of community festivals, event fliers, recruitment materials, meeting minutes, and artifacts (e.g., festival t-shirts and artisanry). 

The third collection contains materials on political and human rights movements and campaigns directed by PRCC leaders and community activists, such as the campaigns to free Puerto Rican political prisoners and to end the military testing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, as well as solidarity and coalitional work on immigration and criminal justice reform. Materials include audio and audiovisual recordings of mobilizations, newsletters and pamphlets, drafts of speeches and essays, political education curricula, photographs, artifacts (e.g., protest signs), and movement ephemera, such as event programs, posters, and fliers. 

With support from the grant, The PRCC will launch Digitizing the Barrio: Documenting and Disseminating the Puerto Rican Experience in Chicago through Community-Based Inquiry. The project is led by Dr. Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, Dr. Margaret Power, Dr. Ann Peterson-Kemp, and technology specialist, Luis Alejandro Molina—all members of the organization’s board. Rodríguez-Muñiz and Power will serve as principal investigators. Shortly, the project will hire a professional archivist and assemble a team of students and community members to begin the process of digitization. Digitized materials will then be placed in a digital repository built on CollectiveAccess and made publicly available. In addition, the project will sponsor a lecture series on the history of Puerto Rican Chicago, organize two digital exhibitions, including one on the PRCC’s 50th anniversary, and establish an archival advisory board, among other initiatives. 

Ultimately, Digitizing the Barrio aims to not only preserve important aspects of the history of Puerto Rican Chicago for future generations. The PRCC archive is, in the words of the UCLA archivist Michelle Caswell, an “urgent archive,” an archive for the present. In face of gentrification and centuries of colonialism, the project will use the PRCC collection and its digitization to build community, deepen roots in our Humboldt Park barrio, and fuel the elaboration of decolonial alternatives.

For more information, email: prccarchive@prcc-chgo.org.

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