Despite growing up in the Southern U.S., GU political science professor Jenaro Abraham said he feels the most at home in Puerto Rico.
Abraham was born in West Virginia and moved to many Southern states in his youth before relocating to Puerto Rico with his father, who is from the territory, after his parents’ divorce when he was 12.
“I often tell people that I grew up in a Puerto Rican household, but I didn’t really know what being Puerto Rican was until I went to Puerto Rico,” Abraham said. “I guess I grew up with some sort of weird imagination of what it could be, and I got there and there was a lot of cultural shock.”
More than anything, Abraham said it was shocking to witness the sheer number of protests in Puerto Rico. When he moved there, he said, many Puerto Ricans were upset about the U.S. government’s treatment of a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico called Vieques.
“The island was being used by the U.S. Navy as a bombing range — they bombed with live uranium,” Abraham said. “So, at one point or another, Puerto Rico had the highest cancer rate in all of the United States including its territories.”
There was a nationwide movement when he arrived in Puerto Rico called “Paz Pá Vieques” or “Peace for Vieques” that attempted to remove the Navy through peaceful means, according to Abraham. His father, Jenaro Alberto Abraham Noriega, along with thousands of other Puerto Ricans occupied the territory so the Navy could no longer bomb.
His father, who has a background in Catholic social movements in the territory, additionally established a church in the area that was being bombed that practiced intercommunion, welcoming people from several different religious practices.
“My brother and I ... were able to see this really interesting intersection of how a church, people and all kinds of other groups could be agents of change in a relationship that was quite obviously imperialist,” Abraham said.
During the protests, Abraham said that his family lived in an abandoned convent where every day he was able to watch his dad bring supplies and other necessary measures to other protesters.
“It was a very eye-opening moment for me,” Abraham said.
Abraham was involved with activism throughout his maturation, as his father worked as an adjunct professor at various institutions in Puerto Rico throughout his teenage years, but Abraham said he most notably remembers being involved in the 2010 University of Puerto Rico (UPR) strike while he was attending the university.
According to Abraham, the university, acting upon measures imposed by the government, had been cutting funding for scholarships and other measures that would guarantee the presence of lower-income populations at the institution, so the students at the university went on strike.
“We shut the university down in 2010 and we were there for a little over two months, if I’m not mistaken, just living behind the campus,” Abraham said.
It was through protest at UPR that Abraham forged his friendship with Guillermo Morejón, who additionally went on strike.
Morejón said that at one point during the strike, Abraham earned the nickname “Bamboo” after the students on strike were discussing what they would do if police presence was introduced onto the campus.
“We were talking about ways that we could barricade ourselves if they tried to come in,” Morejón said. “[Abraham] suggested that we should round up a bunch of fallen bamboo trees and put them on the fence where we believed the police would come in and light it on fire.”
Throughout their years of friendship, Morejón said that activism has been one of the common threads that unites the pair.
“He’s very passionate about everything that he does … It's so empowering, the drive that he’s got, which I guess makes him such a great teacher,” Morejón said.
After attending UPR, Abraham received his doctorate from Tulane University in Louisiana.
He completed his dissertation on why the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the “FARC,” failed as a political movement. In researching this, he spent time in Colombia speaking with former guerrillas in reincorporation camps.
According to Abraham, the experience helped him realize that he aspires to be a mouthpiece for the terrible things happening in the world, and once he completed his studies, he went to teach in Michigan before being hired at GU.
In addition to teaching, Abraham serves as the vice president of the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (the Puerto Rican Independence Party) and as a collaborator for Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora, an international advocacy group composed of Puerto Ricans.
“The activism turned into something else when I came to the United States,” Abraham said. “It became less socialist and more for independence [of Puerto Rico] — not that the socialism part went away — rather, the nation took a different meaning when I came here.”
Morejón said that he thinks Abraham will offer a unique perspective to GU students, as he was raised in the U.S. but identifies most with his Puerto Rican heritage. He said that Abraham’s lived experience may help students understand how U.S. imperialism negatively impacts both those within the U.S. and around the world.
“I’m sure that he is going to see what he is doing as an extension of his work for humanity in general,” Morejón said.
Now, Abraham said that he is both excited and grateful to be teaching at GU because, in a special way, teaching is a form of activism.
“I think that ultimately I have a responsibility to help students imagine the world that they would like to create, not the one that they unwillingly perpetuate,” Abraham said.