By Mariana Martínez Barba
On a cloudy day, El Puente’s Williamsburg Center lights up the neighborhood with its bright blue doors. Multi colored murals cover the outer building and a sign reads, “The people united will never be defeated!” A timely phrase that encapsulates the organization’s 40 years of activism. The history of El Puente has become a symbol of community efforts, education, and justice in Williamsburg.
The organization was founded in 1982 by community activists Luis Garden Acosta, who passed in 2019, Eugenio “Gino” Maldonado, and Frances Lucerna to reduce violence in Los Sures. This year, the organization celebrates its 40th anniversary. We reflect on the organization’s legacy in a conversation with Asenhat Gomez, program director and member since 1992.
Her responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
El Puente has a central focus of “see, judge, and act.” How has this focus evolved since the organization’s founding?
El Puente has certainly changed and evolved. But we have values, our mission, and our practice that have really evolved with community needs. Really our focal mission of inspiring and nurturing leaders of peace and justice doesn’t change. What we do as an organization, who we are, our size has certainly changed and expanded. But in our work with young people, we still use the same focus of if you see something that you want to change, then we’re going to learn about it and we’re going to act on it. There’s power in all of us.
One of the founders, Luis Garden Acosta, was a strong advocate for Latino rights. How does his legacy continue to fuel the organization?
Yeah, I think Luis is somebody very hard to forget. His legacy lives on at all of El Puente. Luis created a legacy for the city and beyond the city. I sit at many tables in many circles, and he’s known for all of his contributions. When El Puente was set to open that’s what it was also about — it was about contributing to the city and about young people seeing themselves in him. He was a young Puerto Rican and Dominican man who grew up with a single mother, because he lost his father early on in his life. He saw opportunities, grew with those opportunities, but also saw that his community needed him and he came back. I think his legacy lives on in our young people in every program, and among many Latino and Latina leaders in the city.
Can you speak on the demographic changes in Williamsburg and Brooklyn in recent years. Has it brought new challenges that the organization has had to address?
So although our demographics in Williamsburg and Bushwick have certainly changed…we’ve lost 20% or more of our Latino population, that’s not really the case for El Puente. El Puente continues to serve primarily black and brown people. Because in spite of what is seen, there is a Latino community here. That community is still vibrant and continues to contribute. In New York, people are no longer so bound by their geographic location and where they sleep — their community continues to be their community.
The Covid-19 pandemic was a tough moment for everyone. What issues arose in the community during this time, and how did El Puente adapt to these changes?
What we do is work in community and certainly, the pandemic was quite a different adaptation for us. Much of what we do doesn’t work virtually. But I think we moved pretty quickly to adapt.
We knew from the beginning what the needs were. We began to establish check-ins with our families, which caused us to open a wellness center. Then it became food, we opened three emergency food distributions. There were people who could not get around to come to the centers, and we had to identify the most vulnerable families. With the feeling of isolation, we established an arts and culture program that was virtual. Then we met in small groups in parks, gardens, and open spaces to see each other’s faces.
This year El Puente celebrates 40 years. What does this anniversary mean for you and the organization?
I think we don’t want to be needed anymore. If we had a world that is just and peaceful, then everything would be fine. That is not the reality in which we live. There is so much racial disproportionality in so many ways. So we have to continue our work. This is my life’s work, my professional career… but it is very personal.
I can speak not only as someone who was a member, but as someone who has had three children who have grown up in this community. El Puente makes New York my home, but it also allowed me to explore all of my passions. Whether it’s working with women, working with youth, working with immigrants, I’ve been able to do all of that at El Puente. When I came here as a member, this space [points around the center] looked physically different, because we were… [laughs] younger when it all opened up.
Speaking of space, we’re here at the Williamsburg Center. What is the legacy of this space?
It is a community space where Los Sures has celebrated its great moments, but has also cried in its worst moments. On 9/11, for example, we became an emergency response center. The Dominican flight that went down that November… this space became an emergency headquarters. Not that we have all the answers, but it is a space to ask questions. “This has happened: What are we going to do? What are we going to do for each other?” I think that’s the legacy of this space.
Mariana Martínez Barba is a freelance journalist interested in covering topics of culture, technology, and society. She’s currently a student at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY specializing in bilingual reporting.