syracuse university Archives - The Jose Vilson

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Where My Bread Is Buttered

by Jose Vilson on September 25, 2011

in Jose

This weekend, I spent time in Syracuse University, my alma mater and the site of Coming Back Together X, a special reunion where the African-American and Latino alumni of Syracuse U can meet with students and faculty on campus every three years in the spirit of camaraderie, growth, and opportunity. This tradition has happened for the last three decades and change, illuminating an illustrious history of people that includes Dave Bing, Jim Brown, Angela Robinson, and Debra Mercado, just to name a few. When I get there, I’m among the few people representing the Millenials (’00 and up), but through the extensive research I did as an undergrad, I was able to contribute and provide context for histories about the campus that let me fit in with the elder statesman there.

As I reminisced on my days as Education Chair of La LUCHA (the premiere Latino organization on campus), I thought about how some of the things we did for the organization that made it as effective as it was. I had my set of issues, but I believe the positive outweighed the negative. If there’s one thing I missed in this list, it’s that our organization collaborated with almost everyone. Despite my personal feelings at the time about Greek-based organizations or parties as a whole, I knew that I had to find common bonds between everyone who walked through the door.

La LUCHA’s main purpose in my era was service to the people, no matter what the cost. We almost felt bad for trying to raise funds or make people pay at the door, so just breaking even was good enough for us. We collaborated with administrative offices, sororities, fraternities, the LGBT group, groups of all colors, and community members. We brought customers to new Latin restaurants and made our presence felt where otherwise we wouldn’t have been welcome. We secretly asked where our constituency was, but we publicly acted like they were already there. By the time we brought Edward James Olmos to campus with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, we had a full executive board brimming with ideas, hopes, optimism, and leadership in their own right.

We didn’t see the empty seats as a diss, but as an opportunity.

As a young student at Syracuse U, I didn’t see all this because, mentally, I rejected some of the notions promoted by my fellow students about their organizations. Every so often, I betrayed my own ideals by snickering when I heard things I didn’t like. The organization’s mission was much bigger than my ego, though. It had less to do with my own point of view about what Latinos should do, and more about what we can do. As a student, Coming Back Together 7 enlightened me on the power of knowing one’s history and the context in which our greatest student organizations worked. Time and again, they would look at us and ask questions that sparked a shift in how we brought people under our umbrella.

Now, I look at the students leading the organizations I was part of. Where once I might have seen a deficit in our socio-political action, I now see a profit in culture and rhythm. No matter what your inclination, finding common ground with others opens doors unseen with the inexperienced eye.

Mr. Vilson, who has big things poppin’ …

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Dr. Paul Buckley and my brother, Ralf Balbi

I remember the first time I spoke to Ralf about what his college experience would be like, and I had a list of people I told him to seek out on the Syracuse University campus. Names like Anthony Otero, Angela Morales-Patterson, Dr. James K. Duah-Agyeman, and Max Patino ring true for thousands of students on campus directly or indirectly through their work on campus for others.

Yet, this weekend was particularly special because not only was my younger brother Ralf graduating from my alma mater, but my early mentor Paul Buckley was graduating from his doctoral program. A man whose own life demands the same discipline and excellence he expects from students who cross his path, he spent hours upon hours of his time dedicated to the advancement of students of color in ways few recognize.

At his party, Paul made a speech shouting out everyone from his parents, mentees, friends, and everyone else who showed up to this gathering at the Community Folk Art Center in Syracuse. One thing that stuck out to me in this speech was this tidbit that I’ll paraphrase to the best of my ability. He said that having mentees gives mentors like him an image that they have to aspire to. That resonated with me because of where I am today and my current occupation. I remember how difficult I was to mentor. While I think I had the mental capacity, I had a hard time with anyone who tried to “school” me on something, even if it wasn’t their intention. That includes Paul.

And through that, Paul still put his hand out. He always made me feel welcome, and forgave when need be. I didn’t understand the power of that until I started to teach. Sometimes, the things people do are a reflection of their own internal pains and not about you. He understood that. Anyone who he’s ever mentored know how freely he gave of his time and energy. But as the winds blew into Syracuse, so did change. When Paul left to University of Michigan, people were sad, but they knew it was time for him to ascend the way he helped others to do.

11 years after meeting Paul, I got the chance to sit and watch him shake the chancellor’s hand just the way he’s watched so many others do. That’s why this picture means so much to me: when I introduced my brother to him, I asked him to take care of him for me. He just nodded and said “Absolutely.” Then he put his hand on my brother’s shoulder and worked from there. This weekend, I’m glad they were both taken care of.

Amen.

Jose, who is still beamin’ …

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Arturo Schomburg by Marcano García at Taller Borinquen

A few weeks ago, a few people asked me why I helped create the now annual event Quisqueya, a celebration of Afro-Latino history throughout the Americas at Syracuse University. Honestly, it had a tinge of selfishness: by then, I helped run a series of workshops dedicated to understanding the relationships between Blacks and Latinos at a time when others kept seeing schisms. Plus, my Dominican-Haitian background spurred me to explore that in a more open forum, i.e. a celebration where I could subliminally prove that schism false. It’s also the most obvious representation of Blacks and Latinos on the same “field”, whereas other lands in the Americas aren’t known for this dual identity, even with the plethora of races occupying Brazil, Peru, Colombia, or Mexico, for instance.

To wit, as the education chair of La LUCHA at the time, I never got asked why it made sense to have such an event; it was obvious how much unity such an event would bring on a campus where the split even existed within organization of mutual interest. The questions of whether I should lead a Latino organization enraged me at the start of my tenure, but instead of taking a reactionary stance against the critics, most of whom never confronted me personally, I decided to take to the streets, finding ways to build bridges in spaces where I didn’t even know I could fit in.

As with any of these experiences, I learned something critical to my formation: the idea of Quisqueya.

“Quisqueya” is a word I’d known so commonly because Dominicans often referred to their part of the island as such. As it turns out, while La LUCHA and the Haitian American Student Association sought funding for Hispaniola, the original name of the aforementioned event, one of the members of the committee pulled us aside and asked us to change the name of the program to Quisqueya. Whereas Hispaniola is a name placed upon the island by people who never originated from there, Quisqueya (or Kiskeya, or “mother earth”) was a name the Tainos used to designate for the entire island, before the countries occupying the island split it into the current countries they are now. That made more sense for the purposes of the event, so we kept it.

This serendipitous lesson on Quisqueya planted the seed for me to go to an event at the Arturo Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at Harlem. It’s the first time I’d ever been to the museum, and the first time I’d ever heard about him. Naturally, I was annoyed for a bit because, even after I’d met so many  intelligent men and women in Syracuse U, no one ever told me about this man.

I think it was Howard Dodson Jr., head of the Schomburg Center, who said it best when he mentioned that Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s history was often ignored and ostracized when it came to Black history. He alluded to the fact that his contributions to Black history were only recognized later on in his career, even with the many allies he had. Thus, it was almost ironic to see that the primary center for Black history is under his name. Once equipped with knowledge, Schomburg found purpose for his work when others didn’t, or didn’t think he was the one who should do it. As a Puerto-Rican immigrant (an Afro-Borinquen at that), he had tons of battles, primarily for identity and membership.

For me, these were the most important contributions to history as a whole: he not only validated Black history, documenting and preserving the important parts of a history still not regularly integrated into our society, but he also validated Afro-Latinos as an essential part of Latino and African Diaspora history, because, while he may not have had the voice, he certainly had the knowledge, proof positive that history shouldn’t simply pass us by.

By being proactive in one’s history, you eventually become an integral part of that.

Jose, who should always write like this when we have snow days …

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