When Great Souls die…our reality, bound to them, take leave of us. Our souls, dependent upon their nurture, now shrink, wizened. Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance, fall away…
— Maya Angelou
By Will Guzmán
Afro-Puerto Rican activist, artist, author, archivist, curator, editor, and professor Miriam E. Jiménez Román passed away last month, on the afternoon of August 6. She was an influential pioneering architect of the Afro-Latinx Studies movement.
Jiménez Román was born on June 11, 1951 in the coastal city of Aguadilla, Puerto Rico to Arcelia Román Ruiz of Vega Baja and Afro-Puerto Rican Baldomero Jiménez Font of Piedras Blancas. The family briefly lived in San Sebastián near the historic town of Lares before migrating in 1952 to East Harlem where her sisters Carmen, Evelyn and Awilda were born.
She received all of her formal education in public schools and universities during the early years of ethnic studies, saying, “I owe my less formal but likely strongest intellectual, professional and personal development to the African diasporic community of scholars and activists,” whose worked inspired her for a lifetime.
A Saxtons River Project participant in 1968, she studied under internationally recognized Black sculptor John Torres at Vermont Academy, determined “to make it on her own terms. And boy!—does life look beautiful!”
The following year, Miriam graduated from Manhattan’s High School for Art and Design where she published insightful short stories for the Prism yearbook as a member of their literary staff, and majored in illustration and advertising art. Instructors at the prestigious school included Joyce Blake, Edna Rose, Whitney Martin, Jessie Blackston, Grade Advisor Charles Ferguson and Art Department Chair Charles Allen.
Prior to graduating, Miriam wrote, “Each new mask is put on, tested, and finally disposed of…Just who am I?” adding, “It should not matter who your parents were. The product is what is of importance. It should not matter!” This introspection and insightfulness would serve her well in future endeavors. Before earning her bachelor’s in sociology from Binghamton University in 1974, she spent a year at the University of Vermont and the University of Puerto Rico–Río Piedras, and then returned to Binghamton to complete the sociology master and doctoral coursework.
Miriam moved to Puerto Rico in the late ’70s to help co-found the feminist collective Encuentro de Mujeres and was Assistant Director of External Resources at Inter American University from 1982 to 1983. She authored dozens of seminal works that challenged racial democracy, Taíno revivalism, blanqueamiento, and the U.S. census, along with editing CENTRO: Journal of Puerto Rican Studies, the premier organ of the field.
As a Research Coordinator and Curator of Exhibits and Special Programs at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Miriam worked closely with SNCC activists Roberta “Bobbi” Yancy, professor Zita Nunes, and director Howard Dodson to produce dozens of widely celebrated international Africana exhibits (1987-1997). She became Assistant Director of the Schomburg Scholars-in-Residence program (2001-2004) and a Scholar-in-Residence herself (2010-2011).
Influenced by the Civil Rights, Black Power and Nuyorican movements, Miriam often asserted, “African Americans have always been in the vanguard. Everything that’s worthwhile in this country has come about because African Americans have pushed it. We all benefit everyday, white people as well as people of color, from the struggles of African Americans.” Her experiences as a Black Puerto Rican helped bring awareness of Afro-Latinidad and build coalitions with U.S. Blacks and the diaspora. Latinidad and Blackness permitted her to contribute to the broader Afro-Latin experience. In 2005, Jiménez Román co-founded and was executive director until her death of the Afro-Latin@ Project, later the AfroLatin@ Forum, which held two instrumental international conferences, Afro-Latin@s Now!, that assembled artist, academics, and activists.
Miriam taught unique courses on Afro-Latin history and culture as a visiting professor at Hunter College, Binghamton, Columbia, Brown and NYU. Her critically acclaimed and co-edited The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States won the 2011 American Book Award. She also co-founded and edited the Palgrave Macmillan Afro-Latin@ Diasporas book series and helped organize the Black Latinas Know Collective in 2019, promoting and mentoring Afro-Latinas who study Blackness and Latinidad such as Zaire Zenit Dinzey-Flores, Bárbara Idalissee Abadía-Rexach, Jessica Marie Johnson, Maritza Quiñones, Mariluz Franco Ortiz, and Isar Pilar Godreau.
In 2000, Miriam married cultural theorist Juan Martin Flores. She departed this physical plane after a four-and-a-half-year struggle with cancer at their home in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico.
The Husia, sacred ancestral text, asserts “to do that which is of value is for eternity. A person called forth by his work does not die, for his name is raised and remembered because of it.”
We invoke the name Miriam Esther Jiménez Román for posterity to honor her contributions to the forward progression of African peoples. Aché!