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Public Lives: A 20-Year Battler For Puerto Rican Political Pull


June 20, 2001
Copyright © 2001 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Angelo FalconAngelo Falcon [PHOTO: Elizabeth Lippman for The New York Times]

GUESS it's just in my blood to be a pain," Angelo Falcón reflected happily. "I'm always busting chops."

Actually, that's not entirely what he said. Mr. Falcón was quite precise about just where he was a pain. However, like much of his cheerfully profane recollections of nearly 20 years of political battles fought and enemies made, it had to be cleaned up a little for the pages of a family newspaper.

As what he calls a "guerrilla researcher" on Puerto Rican and Latino affairs, he has struggled mightily to improve Hispanic political clout without, he concedes, a great deal of success.

"I could fill this room full of reports," he said, gesturing around his small backroom office at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, where he is senior policy executive. "Very nice reports. But nobody does anything. We are still dealing with first-generation issues."

The room looked as if it was already full of reports, along with, despite Mr. Falcón's cantankerous nature, a large array of congratulatory plaques and awards and mounds of bric-a-brac, including a plastic replica of a plate of rice and beans. Much of one wall was taken up with a rather startling painting. Rising from a troubled sea is a big, jagged pile of rocks draped in chains – symbolizing the fragmented, powerless Puerto Rican community – which finally comes together in a big monolith labeled iPr, the logo of Mr. Falcón's original organization, the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy. And on top of all this is a huge falcon, its wings decorated with the colors and star of the Puerto Rican flag. His half-brother, Joseph Grau, painted it to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the group, which merged with the defense fund three years ago.

"He did a real nice job," Mr. Falcón said.

The potential power of the Puerto Rican vote is very much in the air these days, and all the major mayoral candidates except Michael R. Bloomberg are expected to attend a forum on Latino issues today sponsored by the Puerto Rican Legal and Educational Defense Fund. (Mr. Bloomberg was already booked with an opposite demographic group – the Gramercy Park Republican Club – but an aide pointed out that he has been studying Spanish for a year.) Politicians here, including Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, are joining in calls for an end to Navy bombing practice on the island of Vieques. The fund has a hand in that issue, too, with a suit charging environmental damage.

But Mr. Falcón, 50, is contrary.

 THIS should be the fifth Latino forum, not the first," he said. "It's distressing to me how loyal the Latino vote is to the Democratic Party. It's very, very loyal without exacting much in terms of accountability. It's taken for granted. "To talk about Hispanics or Latinos is not a simple thing," he said, summing up his years of research and advocacy.

Mr. Falcón, who was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, probably acquired his attitude at Public School 17. The principal there, white, refused to let his students, mostly Puerto Rican, take the entrance exam for the prestigious Brooklyn Technical High School. Mr. Falcón organized the other students and their parents to fight to take the test. He was the only one admitted. In high school he was influenced by Aspira, a Puerto Rican self-help organization that encouraged youths to go to college. "I wasn't used to seeing Puerto Ricans running things," he said. "In my neighborhood, all the professional people were Jewish."

He decided he wanted to go to Columbia (some in the neighborhood asked why he needed to go so far, to Latin America, for schooling), but again, the guidance counselor, white, didn't want him to apply. This was 1969, the year after the student revolt at Columbia, and the university was under pressure to increase its scant minority enrollment. He was summoned to Morningside Heights.

"I was interviewed in the middle of the night, off campus – it was really bizarre," he remembered. "I didn't have illusions this was normal. I got to see the process behind the curtain, how community pressure opened doors.

"Those were crazy years. It seemed we were always taking over buildings," he remembered. He took a leave after three years, worked for Aspira, came back and graduated from a much straighter campus in 1976. He went on to the State University of New York at Albany (immediately angering the professors by organizing graduate students) but was discouraged from his chosen focus on Puerto Rican politics as too narrow.

Underemployed as a part-time teacher at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, he founded his institute, which consisted largely of himself. "It was this rinky-dink little office. Sometimes, I would fire everybody for three months. They would go on unemployment and work as volunteers," he said, recounting memorable battles with Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, the Coors brewing dynasty and virtually all of the Puerto Rican electoral establishment. There was a newsletter full of insider political gossip that was "a guilty pleasure," he recalled. "People would say, `This is horrible,' then they'd read the whole thing.

"We don't raise these issues in order to be a troublemaker that is then brought into the system. Our role is genuinely just to be a troublemaker," he said. "I want to raise a whole new generation of troublemakers."

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