by Peter N. Pero
Carmen Julia Rodríguez Torres was born in Caguas, Puerto Rico. She completed a B.A. in Humanities (Major: Drama, Minor: Education) in 1977 at the University of Puerto Rico(UPR); undertook some graduate courses at the School of Drama - Florida State University(FSU) (http://www.fsu.edu/), and completed a M.A. on Bilingual Education at the School of Education - Aurora University(AU) in 2015. She worked at the Office of the Governor of PR in Washington DC from 1986 through 1993 and for the Hispanic Congressional Caucus from 1993 to 1994. Her teaching experience covers early childhood to primary/secondary education, as well as college education, both at public and private schools in Puerto Rico, Virginia, Washington (DC), and Illinois. Currently, she is a retired teacher who will soon fulfill a long-life dream: pursuing a Ph.D. degree in Literature at the Center for Advanced Studies on Puerto Rico and the Caribbean at San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2018.
Peter: What is your current church parish? Please explain when and why did you join this church?
Carmen Julia: I was baptized at the Sweet Name of Jesus Cathedral in Caguas a long time ago. However, I will always be a parishioner from the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Church at Guaynabo, the town where my family moved to in the 1960’s and where my father currently lives. It was there where I met Father Luis – an angel from Heaven – and where I grew up and developed as a Christian and a Catholic.
Peter: In what ways did your religious experience change over time?
Carmen Julia: As a child “religion” was something you did emulate your parents and elders: praying the rosary, going to Mass, taking care of the OTHER whoever the OTHER might be. As I grew older and experimented with other “religious systems,” I came to understand the real meaning of “religare” – Latin for to connect… with something BIGGER, transformational… something that, for lack of a better word, we call GOD… I prefer, Heavenly Father, as Jesus did.
Peter: What formative events in your personal background led you to devote a life spent in education… Was it a very admirable teacher in school, your parents, the Church, or any other factors?
Carmen Julia: Well, I began to teach at my parish as a catechist both for children and adults, so the Church was my first mentor in the teaching path. Even though my teachers were wonderful, I never saw myself as a teacher. That all changed after a group of multilingual/multicultural toddlers at the Early Childhood Center of the Interamerican Development Bank(IDB) in Washington(DC) “taught” me that I am a teacher. At the moment I had nearly ten years of teaching experience both at public and private schools and as a catechist. It was a transformational experience, however, to teach in a classroom where Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Italian as well as Hindi and Korean were spoken and sung every day. Those twenty-four incredible toddlers motivated me to return to the UPR Faculty of Education and complete a Teacher Certification
Program. When completed, I was recruited as a bilingual teacher by the East Aurora School District of Illinois in 2012.
Peter: Could you share some of the lessons learned from your students throughout your years of teaching?
Carmen Julia: No doubt about it, my students have been my most demanding “teachers.” One day I will write a book about the many transformational lessons I learned from them. At this moment let me share a recent one. My students at John Gates Elementary School in Aurora, Illinois were reading passages from the Odyssey and writing essays about their feelings and insights. Essay after essay they said how much they related to Odysseus’ life and his journey back home. These students were mostly second-generation Mexican Americans who recognized in the readings their own stories: the stories of the “migrants.” When Reading Night came, they performed for their mothers the stories they have read. At break time when the children went to the lunch area, their mothers turned to me and said: “Could you tell us the stories in Spanish!” We may look “different” and talk in “different” languages, but we ALL belong to the same race: the Human Race and our stories, although diverse, constitute ONE universal tale.
In what ways does the evolution of the social fabric influence educational practices?
Carmen Julia: In this realm where we live, the only reality is change. “Educare” – to train in Latin – is the art of accompanying the novice throughout the learning journey. To literally take the novice by the hand and assist him/her to find his/her purpose so as educated adults they can effectively perform their duties in the community and build a better future for ALL. An Education System that does not keep up with the dreams and challenges of the times is an inefficient Education System. It may feel like a contradiction, but CHANGE is the transformative engine driving any educational endeavor… as long as we are free to pursue our own interests and forge our own paths. If we do not try a “different” path once in a while, how will we know we are on the right path?
Peter: Of course if we are in constant flux and charting new paths as you suggest, then the class, academic departments, and school environment could be chaotic. How many mandates from the school district, the state board of education, and the federal government are you willing to tolerate?
Carmen Julia: My dear Mr. Peter are you implying that we cram data into a brain? Learning is about making sense out of reality in order to construct meaning and therefore knowledge. The only way to achieve that is by “experimenting” with different paths under the guidance of a teacher. In this technological age that “teaching style” is quite feasible. The only challenge is to UNDERSTAND the difference between data and thinking… between learning and memorizing… between education for a lifetime and specific training for employment. Anyway, learning is a life-long endeavor for we constantly explore new paths every day.
Peter: In what ways has your religious faith influenced your teaching experience?
Carmen Julia: My first teacher was my mother who taught me about my Heavenly Father and my Heavenly Mother by teaching me to pray the rosary. Her example, as well as the example of my father, left no doubt in my heart that we live in the creation of a good and merciful God. A God who out of His great LOVE for us allowed His only begotten son to be sacrificed so we ALL may have life everlasting. That is a profound lesson I try to teach the way I learned it: for example.
Peter: Is the Catholic Church in the world today doing enough, too little, or generally expiring and collapsing?
Carmen Julia: The “Catholic” Church, the “Universal” Church is the reflection of the hopes and challenges of the Human Race throughout the ages. Is it a “perfect” institution? No, it is composed of fallible human beings. Could it do better? Certainly, there is always room for improvement as we grow and develop in the spiritual path. As the home away from home, the Church tries to shelter and nurture God’s people even though her ways may be imperfect at times. The word in Spanish “Iglesia” comes from the Greek word “Ecclesia” – Assembly – so the Church is as effective as the members of the assembly.
Peter: What are the “Points of Light” in the Church today that motivate you?
Carmen Julia: Pope Francis and his message about the redemptive power of God’s LOVE. My pride at the simple, powerful message of the first Latin American Pope knows no bounds. HOPE springs eternal!
Peter: I presume you oppose the Trump Administration for many reasons. How can working people today take back again their government? Do you propose street actions, electoral solutions, or people’s lobbying of some kind?
Carmen Julia: I did not vote for President Trump… I was for the other… Like many Americans notwithstanding, I hoped that he would rise to the demands of the job and make us proud. Those hopes were shattered the day he threw paper towels at my Boricua people not far away from where my father was struggling without water or electricity after Hurricane María brought Borinken(Taino Name of Puerto Rico) down to its knees. The American People – true to their nature – had not taken things passively. On the streets, at the airports, wherever and whenever the OTHER’s freedom has been threatened, there they stand saying in no uncertain terms: “NOT UNDER MY WATCH!” As long as we keep acting on behalf of Human Rights everywhere, as long as the system of checks and balances devised by our Founding Fathers delivers as intended, as long as we remain TRUE Americans, the brightest days of the United States will be yet to come.
Peter: Is there any hope for the future of the traditional political process in the USA, PR, or any other democratically managed country today? For example, some people say Scandinavia has the cleanest and most humane social system in the world. Do you believe that a government exists anywhere today that is mainly serving the people, creating jobs, and delivering a reasonable opportunity for the good life for its citizens?
Carmen Julia: The good people of Scandinavia have been experimenting with different forms of social coexistence for over seven hundred years now, give us some time, my friend! Having said that – there is no other way: VOTE! There are no magic bullets. As responsible citizens, we got to vote. It is that simple. We say in Spanish: “¡Camarón que se duerme se lo lleva la corriente!” (“Asleep shrimps are dragged downstream!”) We must remain vigilant. We must act. We need to say PRESENT and take a stand. We, the People, have the government we deserve. Speak out! Stand up! VOTE!
Peter: Are you personally for complete independence for PR, the same political status as now, or a new political status?
Carmen Julia: I am an “independentista,” I do believe Borinken will be an independent country someday… Unfortunately, I am one of only 5% to 10% of the Boricuas who votes this way. I am ALSO a proud American citizen and I wished that the current status – “Estado Libre Asociado” (Commonwealth) – could work. Decisions are taken by the US Supreme lately nonetheless leave very little room for that hope. Even though many have tried through our relationship with the US, I do not believe statehood is feasible either. The Jewish People lived in a seemly unending diaspora for thousands of years until one day they could finally return to the homeland. I said it before and say it again: HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL!
Peter: Since you are returning to PR to pursue a doctoral degree, what may be your ideal dissertation topic and what would be the dream outcome that grows from it?
Carmen Julia: I would like to write a book about the multiethnic, multilingual dimensions of the Boricua Diaspora. In the US alone, Boricuas are five million strong. Many have written about their experience. I am looking at other groups of Boricuas abroad: the military personnel in Europe and Asia, the offspring of Puerto Rican soldiers with Asian women, the self-exiled “independentistas” in places like Peru… Once the book is published, I would like to teach a class at colleges on the Island, the US, and elsewhere.
Peter: Any final thoughts you might want to share with our readers?
Carmen Julia: Life is a journey. Each step we take – as the old Chinese proverb dictates – forges the path to a brighter, better future, but it all begins with ONE step. Take it! Good Journey