Humboldt Park students explore Puerto Rico's past

Uncle Sam stands over a map of the United States with a stern face as his eyes glance westward. In a political cartoon drawn after the Spanish-American War, he holds lassos extending to the Philippines, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, with Cuba and Spain tucked under his arm like football.

The image is part of a Newberry Library exhibit that employs maps, documents and photographs to examine Puerto Rican history through the eyes of conquistadors, explorers, industrialists, and imperialists.

Rather than rely on academics to curate the exhibit, the museum drafted 14 students from Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park to put it together.

"It's the first time the library has had high school students as curators, let alone had an exhibit on Puerto Rico," says Saul Melendez, a social studies teacher who guided the student curators. "Newberry used to be surrounded by a Puerto Rican population, now the students are participating in that institution, 40 to 50 years later."

In addition to the cartoon of Uncle Sam, the exhibit includes accounts of explorers from the 1600s, photographs from the turn of the twentieth century, and evidence of the use of Puerto Rico as a satellite for the African slave trade.

The students sifted through historical objects, decided how to present the exhibit's themes, wrote copy to accompany the displays, and translated the text into Spanish.

"They decided to put the Spanish translation before the English explanations, which was another first for the library," says Melendez.

Evidence of racism, stereotypes, and xenophobia stimulated vibrant discussion among the students, notes Melendez.

"It was sometimes uncomfortable, but students got a better understanding of what it means to be Puerto Rican," Melendez says.

The exhibit also explains how progress in the struggle for independence since the Spanish-American war has been incremental, continuing to this day.

Next to an 1898 copy of a constitution establishing Puerto Rican self-government, the students note that Puerto Rico still has no right to self-determination. Nor does the island have a vote in the U.S. presidential election,which is relevant given Puerto Rico's recent action in the Democratic primary.

"There's the impression that libraries aren't as relevant to kids today," says Heather Malec, director of public relations at Newberry. "What is great is that these students got something tactile, pieces of history that build on what's learned in the classroom."

500 Years of Puerto Rican History Through the Eyes of Others is part of the rotating Spotlight Exhibit Series at Newberry Library. It runs until July 12. Newberry is located at 60 W. Walton St., Chicago. For hours, call (312) 255-3691.