PODER pushes students toward advocacy, education
Alum and students reflect on UB's historic Latino organization, half a century later
Alberto O. Cappas founded PODER with a goal. He wanted an outlet for Puerto Rican students at UB.
Cappas and other founding members aimed to bring reformist and radical techniques to PODER, based on clubs like Black Student Union. They established educational opportunities for Latino students in the ‘60s and ‘70s, like Puerto Rican studies and the Office of Minority Student Affairs.
Fifty years since PODER’s founding, Cappas continues his work with local colleges like Canisius to promote minority advocacy and action.
“You get drafted by the time and that time, in the ‘60s, people were talking about a revolution. People were crying for justice,” Cappas said. “I’m retired now and I have more time to give to the community. You don’t retire to fade away. You retire to give back. We were given a gift so you want to give that gift back.”
PODER was founded as the Puerto Rican Organization for Dignity, Elevation and Responsibility. The organization focuses on the Latino community overall, doing local service and educating students at their general body meetings.
Freddy Cazares, a junior economics major, is PODER Latinos Unidos’ current president. Cazares said he wants to continue touching on social concerns for Latinos and provide a safe space for Latino students on campus.
“When we do special events, when we do topics like our ‘Afro-Latino’ discussion, you’re doing it for the members and the general body. There’s a bigger purpose to this,” Cazares said.
“It’s not just a club. It’s a safe space you’re creating for other people because you felt like you couldn’t find it. When I came here, I became more in touch and closer with my culture. I may not know everything we discuss, but it’s important we educate ourselves to educate the public.”
In its initial years, PODER made efforts to spread its message throughout Buffalo.
In fall 1969, organizations like PODER and BSU called for UB to recruit more black and Puerto Rican students to the School of Medicine. After then-dean Dr. LeRoy A. Pesch denied discrimination in admissions, students went on a strike and organized outside Capen Hall, according to The Spectrum archives.
Then-acting UB president Peter F. Regan called for police action and student suspension to prevent further “disruptive activity on campus.” As a result of the strike, the medical school developed a program to increase minority enrollment, leading to female students expressing similar concerns.
UB alum like Tino Mejia, a Lackawanna resident, is a former American Studies instructor and founded Azteca SU in the ‘70s. Born in Michoacán, Mexico, Mejia said he modeled his club off PODER and wanted to make it a place for Mexican-American students on campus.
Azteca SU, with other clubs like PODER and people in Puerto Rican studies, discussed ways to improve studies for Hispanic Americans. Mejia traveled with other students to places like Syracuse and New York City to recruit new Latino students. Mejia said the active level of communication between faculty and students at UB stood out at the time.
“When we did what we did, it was with the help of everyone in the community. It was with faculty who said, ‘Yes, we are going to work together here.’ So faculty were more communicative and they needed to help. But overall, everyone in the club networked and there was a lot of incorporation throughout,” Mejia said.
Aside from on-campus efforts, PODER established Spanish programming at WBFO like a Salsa hour and “Comunidad Opina,” a show centered on community discussions. At the nearby Attica Correctional Facility, PODER members worked to ease the release of Puerto Rican prisoners as well.
Founding member Jose Pizarro said the club laid the groundwork for future students and helped immerse students in their culture.
“We helped develop a program in Puerto Rico so students in the SUNY and CUNY system could go there and study at Puerto Rico’s Institute of Culture,” Pizarro said.
“This was a way of getting students who may not have been born in Puerto Rico to bring awareness to their people, the life there. A lot of them had never been to their country, and to give them an understanding of being a Puerto Rican and what it meant was very important.”
The creation of Buffalo’s Puerto Rican-Chicano Committee, taking cues from PODER, followed and helped meet social needs of the Latino community.
Pizarro and Cappas are currently co-chairs of the Puerto Rican Committee for Community Justice, which has a division that helps link students to community activism. Cappas said he sees current student involvement differently from his time with PODER. Still, he hopes to develop a relationship between ex-PODER members and the current club.
For Cazares, who joined PODER in 2016, the club helped him feel more attached to his culture at UB.
“I’m Mexican, so I’ve always been strong with my Latino culture. When I came here, I was feeling a culture wash. All of that was getting taken away from me,” Cazares said.
“I felt like I was surrounded by everything but my culture until I came to PODER. As a whole, it’s honestly strengthened my roots and given me more now so I now identify myself as Afro-Latino.”
Arielis Rosales, a senior psychology and Spanish major minoring in criminology, is PODER’s secretary. Rosales said the club expanded her interests in learning about the struggles people of color go through at campuses like UB.
“When I first got into PODER, I thought it would be different, but I realized otherwise the first week,” Rosales said. “We’ll talk about social issues, but we’re not going to make it serious all the time. We’re going to do fun activities, which is not a bad thing but PODER loses its meaning by that. We’re mainly here to try to inform and to advocate for people of color here on campus.”
Niomarie Rivera, a junior Spanish and international studies major, has been a PODER member since 2016. Rivera said the club focuses on critical topics in their discussions, providing an accepting forum for everyone.
“From topics focused in Latin America to the U.S., PODER will talk about things people mostly feel uncomfortable talking about. Everyone is different and has their own experience and opinion but overall, PODER makes anyone feel welcome,” Rivera said.
For interested students, PODER Latinos Unidos meets Tuesdays at 5 p.m. in SU 330.
Benjamin Blanchet is the senior features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.