07 January 2011

Frank Bonilla, Scholar of Puerto Rican Studies, Dies at 85

Was the Director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

By Dennis Hevesi 
New York Times

Frank Bonilla, an academic who grew up in two of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, faced segregation in the Midwest and went on to create one of the nation’s first college-level Puerto Rican studies programs and its first consortium for Latino studies, died on Dec. 28 in Escondido, Calif. He was 85.

For 20 years, starting in 1973, Dr. Bonilla was the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York. Already a renowned Latin American studies scholar, he had joined with other professors, students and community activists in pressing the City University of New York to open the center.

Under Dr. Bonilla’s leadership, the program integrated various strands of Puerto Rican studies — history, politics, economics and cultural development — with the aim of exposing the forces behind ethnic and racial prejudice. The center, which studied the colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the mainland and analyzed the extensive post-World War II migration from the island, houses one of the nation’s largest archives on the Puerto Rican experience.

One of Dr. Bonilla’s most influential projects was the Inter-University Program for Latino Research, which he co-founded in 1986. It began as a national consortium of eight university-based research centers and grew to include more than 20 universities that cooperate in interdisciplinary research. Among other studies, the program has analyzed the impact of global, national and regional economic forces on the earnings of Latinos in the United States.

“Dr. Bonilla was this high-powered intellectual taking the lead in bringing together key institutions,” said Félix Matos Rodríguez, the president of Hostos Community College in the Bronx and a former director of the Puerto Rican research center. “Nobody had the combination of profound credibility and the trust of academicians, elected officials and community leaders in the trenches to research problems like persistent poverty, lack of access to education, segmented labor markets and the difficulties for immigrants facing entry into institutions in the U.S.”

Born in Manhattan on Feb. 3, 1925, Frank Bonilla was one of three children of Francisco and Maria Bonilla, who had moved from Puerto Rico. He grew up in East Harlem and the South Bronx, but for several years lived with family friends in Tennessee and Illinois, where he came face to face with segregation: he was regularly told to sit in the back of the bus.

After graduating from high school, Dr. Bonilla served in the Army during World War II. He graduated from City College in 1949 and earned a master’s degree in sociology from New York University in 1954 and a doctorate in sociology from Harvard in 1959.

Dr. Bonilla began his academic career in 1960 as a member of the American Universities Field Service, doing research in South America. In a 1962 report, “Rural Reform in Brazil,” he found that 75 percent of the farmland was owned by 8 percent of the farmers, and that two-thirds of the rural population was illiterate and therefore could not vote.

He went on to teach political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1963 to 1969, and at Stanford from 1969 to 1972. He then returned to New York to begin work on creating the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Besides his daughter Natasha, Dr. Bonilla is survived by another daughter, Sandra Bailey; a son, Francisco; a sister, Esther Miller; five grandchildren; and one great-grandson.