Interviewee: Belen M. Serra
IWY TX 457
Interviewer: June Hahner
Date: November 19, 1977
Belen M. Serra was a social worker and educator from Ponce, Puerto Rico, living in San Juan at the time of the National Women’s Conference. She was the Dean of Studies at the University of Puerto Rico at Río Piedras. Interview includes discussion of Serra’s work with a commission on the condition of women in Puerto Rico and how she became involved in the women’s movement as a researcher and workshop leader. Serra also discussed the Ohio delegation and how vocal some conservative delegates were in their critiques of certain conference speakers.
Belen Serra: I am from the San Juan area, originally from another town on the island, Ponce.
June Hahner: Ponce? That’s not a town, that’s a city.
BS: That’s a city, you are right, perhaps the best one on the island. (Laughs) But there is a great movement towards this one area so that you tend to come to work –
JH: But San Juan must now have, I don’t know what percent of the island’s population, but it’s a large percent.
BS: It does have the largest percentage. It must be about a third of the island. And the island is getting to be too populated from one end to the other. So the area is a very large one and they are overpopulated. I work at the University Puerto Rico, if you are interested, a social worker originally and then I’m now with the university. I’m the Dean of Studies of the Rio Piedras campus.
JH: You wouldn’t happen to know Bianca Silvestro (unintelligible at 1:17)?
BS: Surely, Bianca Silvestrini. Yes, yes.
JH: She got her degree at my (tape skip 1:24).
BS: My degree on the Rio Piedras campus…
JH: I haven’t seen Blanca in several years.
BS: She’s doing very nicely.
JH: She’s been doing a lot of research.
BS: She has. She is a really serious scholar and working in a number of ways. We are trying to reorganize the programs in the humanities and make them more pertinent to our own social realities, so that Blanca has been very active on that. Do you want me to go on?
JH: I want you to say anything you please. I could ask questions, but just your background and why you’re here and anything you want to say.
BS: Well, you know Puerto Rico these companies stimulated some work, but we have already been interested in this area of women’s rights and the conditions of the work, which women live and work, and we have had not too long a history, about 100 years of various movements related to women. During the past century it tended to be really the well educated women that led this type of movement, but in the beginning of this century women workers tied to the tobacco industries at home started looking for their rights.
Then in more recent years the civil rights commission at home developed the story around the condition of women, and this led in turn to the establishment of a government board for the improvement of women’s rights in Puerto Rico. The commission has about three years of history and it’s been very active in trying to get through legislation. It has also developed a research program on issues such as stereotypes and education, about women, in the media and so forth, so that during the conference we did get a broad support.
Because we had regional meetings in various parts of the island and did try to reach out and ask what’s the intent of this whole movement, so they really have quite a variety of women coming in. Places like (unintelligible at 4:06), which is agricultural, a lot of farm workers came to the regional meetings. Then we have the island wide meeting in San Juan, and there we got about (unintelligible at 4:23) 1,000 and a small number of men came. We have developed a report about that; we approved about sixty-four different resolutions which deal with the problems that we are discussing now.
After the conference itself in this development up to now, there is some difficulty in this sense, from the ethnic and the minority point of view. We do support that plan of action that has been developed for this conference, yet you read its language, it’s rather broad and general and the experience up to now in the number of caucuses that I have attended, the minority caucus, the Hispanic caucus, even the black caucus, there is a feeling of frustration that one item in the plan of action is a very really very skimpy one that doesn’t do full justice to the problem of a woman who is also a minority member. The problem is much more complex, and we’ve been trying all through the morning how to approach this problem because we do want the plan of action to get through. But we would also like for it to be more responsive and to address more directly some of the issues that are related to women’s minorities.
At this time, we are trying to deal with this before the plenary session where the plan will be presented to the whole company. We hope to succeed both in supporting and getting the plan through and also to get into the record some kind of more specific statement about the problems of minority women. The experience up to now in the conference have been most interesting. (Unintelligible at 6:41) the whole business of organization and trying to contact people is very difficult.
We can only hope that we do succeed in getting through the plan as a basis of further action. When it’s speaking from the point of view of Puerto Rico, the delegates – we are twelve and there are five who are alternates, we met about three or four times before coming to the conference and we plan after we go back home to see what kind of mechanism for following through not only on the plan of action but on the way that it applies to our local conditions, and we’ve been thinking perhaps of a federation of women groups, or even a broad federation of special interest groups that may follow through on what this conference means.
JH: Do you represent any particular organization?
BS: Well, no, I was elected I think, because I had a previous meeting at the Commission for Human Rights at home, the Human Rights Commission, and as a professional I worked with the commission on the story on the condition of women. I think that I do represent a point of view as a professional educator, as human service personnel, and this is what we are trying to do. The movement at home in general is not as radical as you find in some sectors here. We are more for a real partnership between man and woman, and not specifically to advance any type of sector of the women’s movement. There is of course resistance to the whole idea, and we do need the support if we are going to get effective action, from political groups and so forth, so that we have to develop a sensible and realistic plan of action.
We have been able to move on the – in a sense it’s surprising from the material that we are getting from the National Commission. For instance, in relation to family laws I find that the situation in Puerto Rico is much more favorable than in a number of states. We have in our own commonwealth’s constitution the equal rights disposition. Our constitutional mandate is not to discriminate by reason of sex. Sex is included, and we have had no problems like some groups here I hear about this being unfavorable on the family and so forth. In a sense this issue sounds a bit artificial and very emotional. We do not have the fears that appear to have grown here. In fact, the Puerto Rican delegation is sitting in front of the Ohio delegation, and the Ohio delegation seems to be against ERA.
BS: Yes, they are very aggressive in their comments. I don’t know what happened in Ohio. The women who were sitting behind us were saying –
JH: Utah is one thing, but… (laughs)
BS: Those delegates that are sitting in back of us are very aggressive against ERA and they keep making a lot of comments at Barbara Jordan (unintelligible at 10:52).
JH: Really, because where I was sitting back with the observers I was applauding Barbara Jordan nonstop.
BS: You take a look at the Ohio delegation, they remain seated while everybody else rose so that they seem to be one of those delegations that has at least a large group that perhaps is against the plan. I don’t know. I’m just speaking from what I hear in back of me.
(Unintelligible at 11:30) may be of interest to you, this meeting. I was at the exhibit in our own little – there were a lot of people coming in and family groups going through and getting the materials, reading materials that had been put out, so obviously they are here, and numerous groups, the Catholic or religious or I don’t know what else, everyone trying to advance a point of view, so that I do hope that we can have a real dialogue in the plenary sessions.
JH: Yes, we see the variety but…
BS: This is a strength in the conference, and I think that Congresswoman Jordan addressed that very nicely this morning, very nice. And I hope we can live up to what she stated in terms of diversity of opinion.
JH: She said it well.
BS: And respect for a dissident point of view.
JH: I’m real interested in how people like her, people like you get involved. Obviously you’ve been at this for years. This a novelty; there are people who just come in last minute. You’ve been working on this for years.
BS: Well, let me tell you that as a professional woman I haven’t experienced any problems at home. I have advance in my career, I have not been denied any position, perhaps because my field is social work, and then I went into teaching, and at home that’s a profession that women cultivate.
JH: Yes, always into, yes.
BS: I mean, since it was rather accidental that I was approached the Civil Rights Commission to work on this story of women, conditions of women in Puerto Rico. It was in this way that about six years ago I became interested in the subject and I have since participated. In other words, it was not a course with me for too long.
JH: But you say six years, some people I think just started the day before yesterday. (Laughs)
BS: At the convention in Puerto Rico there were a number of housewives, young housewives that, as you point out, this was the first time that they had come together. They were very interested. To them it was a new experience. We has repeatedly the workshops, we requested that more workshops be developed, even incidentally along the course of the year, to discuss issues and problems. This is something that we would like to follow through on because there seems to be a greater awareness on the part of young women.
JH: What will come out of a conference like this?
BS: Well, already it has generated a great deal of – I think the fact that it was preceded by so many meetings in the states, even though some states – it was an occasion to discuss issues that are obviously of social importance. Perhaps results were not always what one would have expected, but I think the issues have acquired visibility and it’s always good to discuss a subject even when there are very controversial viewpoints around them, than to have these things latent in the social consciousness. That’s already a gain. We shall transcend the difficulties I hope, and if a woman develops as a person then the whole humanity gains. That is our hope and the reason why we are here.
End of Interview