Mourning the Passing of the Puerto Rican Leader and Community Activist Gilberto Gerena Valentín

Statement by Juan Cartagena President & General Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF

On behalf of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, I extend our heartfelt condolences to the family of Gilberto Gerena Valentín who passed away this weekend in Lares, Puerto Rico. Mr. Gerena Valentín was a mainstay of Puerto Rican activism in New York City and throughout the Puerto Rican diáspora and he was a former client of mine in a major Voting Rights Act case in 1981.

Gilberto Gerena Valentín epitomizes the best elements of Puerto Rican activism in New York City where he lived for 50 years. From stewarding small Puerto Rican social clubs to leading legislation in the City Council, from hunger strikes and arrests to testifying in favor of independence before the UN’s Special Committee on Decolonization, from organizing with Dr. Martin Luther King to using the federal courts to protect equal rights, Mr. Gerena Valentín used multiple avenues to obtain respect for Puerto Ricans both here and in Puerto Rico.

Born in Lares, Puerto Rico in 1919, he arrived in the City at the age of 18 and returned to Lares – a town with enormous significance to the Puerto Rican independence movement – where he became active this time on the cultural front as the Director of the publication, Grito Cultural.

It was his five decades of activism in New York City, however, that are most remembered by movement leaders. The late Richie Pérez noted (“A Young Lord Remembers” May 2000) how Gerena Valentín organized parents to march across the Brooklyn Bridge along with the late Evelina Antonetty, to demand better educational facilities for Puerto Ricans in the mid-60s and how he laid the foundation for the founding of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights with his organization the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights.

Respect for civil and human rights had always characterized the work of Mr. Gerena Valentín. Moving into El Barrio in the 1930s Gerena Valentín became a labor organizer with the American Labor Party learning his craft with the legendary Congressman Vito Marcantonio. Organizing female Puerto Rican workers was high on his list as he honed his skills by mobilizing local unions as well as the town clubs that were created throughout New York to organize Puerto Ricans through their hometown affiliations.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he continued to engage in multiple ways to assert these basic rights for Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. In 1961 with the Congreso de Pueblos – an affiliation group representing the towns of Puerto Rico – he pushed for the elimination of the English literacy requirements for voting under New York law. By the mid-60s, he was appointed by Dr. Martin Luther King as the Northeast coordinator of the “Poor People’s Campaign” and mobilized over 30,000 Puerto Ricans in support of the campaign in Central Park. Appointed by Mayor Lindsay as Director of the New York City Commission on Human Rights, his outspokenness ending up with his termination by the Mayor, a hunger strike by Mr. Gerena Valentín leading to his arrest for civil disobedience, a successful wrongful termination suit, back pay and dignity.

His penchant for using the courts was not limited to his individual confrontation with Mayor Lindsay. Indeed, Mr. Gerena Valentín repeatedly used the federal courts to assert his rights and the rights of his supporters during his successful campaigns as an elected official from the Bronx.

From 1977 to 1982 he was elected to the New York City Council. In the late 70s, he sued to apply one person, one vote principles to the political party committees that were authorized to name candidates to special elections (Montano v. Lefkowitz) after the resignation of Mr. Herman Badillo from Congress in 1978. At the same time, he won a lawsuit to keep him on the ballot to challenge Ramón Velez for the City Council in 1977 (Williams v. Sclafani) by convincing the federal courts that citizens who simultaneously registered to vote and signed candidate petitions could legitimately assert their rights on behalf of their preferred candidates.

But perhaps his most important case is Gerena Valentín v. Koch, a Section 5 Voting Rights Act case, where he challenged a discriminatory City Council redistricting plan along with African American voters in Brooklyn (Herron v. Koch) as our client at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund. After the Census determined that New York City was 47% Black and Latino, and that the Bronx was two-thirds minority, the City Council devised only 8 minority districts out of 45, and only two in the Bronx.

The City cavalierly planned its September 1981 primary elections without obtaining preclearance from the Justice Department. Mr. Gerena Valentín was pressured to vote in favor of the plan or risk having his house drawn out of his district. He went to court instead and along with Mr. Melville Herron stopped the city primaries two days before Election Day. Eventually, the discriminatory plan was rejected by the Department of Justice and a new plan with additional districts in African-American and Latino communities were created. To this day, the diversity of New York City’s City Council reaps the benefit of the lawsuits filed by Gerena Valentín and Herron.

Equally important, Gilberto Gerena Valentín was at the Forefront of demanding bilingual ballots for Puerto Rican voters in the 1960s taken that battle to a congressional hearing in 1965. Congress relented and passed Section 4 (e) of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, locally known as the “Puerto Rican Section” of the Act. Section 4 (e) became the precursor for all bilingual language assistance in voter registration forms and at the voting booth years later to the benefit of all language minority citizens and indeed, to the benefit of American democracy.

Representing the National Association for Puerto Rican Civil Rights, Mr. Gerena Valentín issued a statement to Congress, along with Mr. Herman Badillo and Ms. Irma Vidal Santaella that asserted the rights of Puerto Rican to equal access to the ballot, regardless of their English proficiency. Their joint statement includes the following, elegant formulation of the challenges they faced at the time:

“There exists then a myth in our State of New York that a citizen can be an intelligent, well-informed voter only if he is literate in English. We differ with that view emphatically.”

Today, that statement still holds true. And because of the efforts of Gilberto Gerena Valentín, and others, we are all the better for it.

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