Originally published in National Institute for Latino Policy (NiLP)
HARTFORD, CT, September 19 2012 – Sometimes the most important teaching occurs not in the classroom but in meeting and hearing from people who have made an incalculable difference, Trinity President James F. Jones, Jr., said Tuesday.
Sila María Calderón is one such person. A former governor of Puerto Rico and successful businesswoman, Calderon has become a role model as the first and only woman to be duly elected head of the Commonwealth. Calderon attended a reception and spoke to Trinity students during a whirlwind visit to Connecticut this week. She was here to help promote the Sila M. Calderón Foundation and its sister program, the Center for Puerto Rico, which she founded in 2004.
Its mission is to reduce poverty and inequity; advance the role of women in society; promote urban revitalization; and strengthen ethical values and social responsibility.
In introducing Calderon, Jones noted that in addition to her being governor of Puerto Rico from 2001 through 2005, she was also mayor of San Juan from 1997 to 2001, and held many high-ranking government jobs. She decided not to run for a second term as governor, a decision she said she now regrets.
“She tackled problems that no one else would have tackled…and she pulled it off,” said Jones. “She’s an advocate for women and for empowering women.”
Two of the issues she tackled were poverty and urban renewal, which – despite her efforts – continue to plague the island. Calderon said 46 percent of the residents of Puerto Rico live in poverty, compared to 28.9 percent in Mississippi, the state with the highest poverty rate in the United States.
“It’s as if they are hidden in a bubble,” said Calderón. “They are urban and rural, struggling and dependent on federal funds” to get by.
Calderón told her audience that she has learned several important lessons from her years as a government official and businesswoman. As explained by Calderon:
* The human spirit is great and people are always free to make choices and changes.
* Change comes from within; it comes from the heart.
* Residents have to drive the process of change; they have to have ownership.
* The government can’t solve every problem. Other segments of society have to join forces.
In addition to seeking support for her foundation, Calderón said her trip to the United States is trying to accomplish other objectives. She has already persuaded Rutgers University to establish an M.A. program in Puerto Rico with a concentration in community development. She is also trying to raise funds so that mico-loans can be distributed to women in Puerto Rico who are interested in starting or expanding a business. And she is reaching out to academics to explore how they can help evaluate ongoing programs.
Despite her electoral popularity and successes, Calderón was accused by political opponents of misspending tens of millions of dollars while governor. The legislature has been conducting an investigation since she left office, without resolution.
Asked by a student about how she handles criticism and personal attacks, Calderón said it’s important to turn “a deaf ear and not pay attention to the media and criticism. You can’t let go of your vision…or take it personally.”
She was also asked about Puerto Rico’s ability to produce a high turnout in elections. When she ran for governor, 86 percent of those eligible to vote cast a ballot – a rate far in excess of that in the United States.
Calderón said that Puerto Rico has made Election Day a national holiday, and that people are not required to work. Places that sell alcohol are closed. “It’s like going to church for us to vote,” she said.
Calderon was also asked a question that has dogged Puerto Rican politicians for years: whether she supports statehood for the island. She noted that residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens, serve in the armed forces and think of themselves in every way as Americans. She said there are also benefits to not being a state, such as having American companies do business in Puerto Rico and not having to pay federal taxes.
As for becoming this country’s 51st state, Calderón said she supports the island’s political status: a commonwealth that has “all of the values of democracy.” She called the status “a fantastic political experiment that is working.”
She ended her talk by noting that the battle between the pro-statehood and pro-commonwealth forces is still raging and is not likely to be settled any time soon.
Calderon graduated from Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, graduating in 1964 with a degree in political science. In 1972, she graduated with an M.A. in public administration from the University of Puerto Rico.