Despite Writing to Smithsonian That He Was ‘Appalled,’ Former Puerto Rico Governor Says He Did Not Call for Cancellation of Diaspora Summit

Feb 1, 2021
9:22 PM

In this April 18, 2013 file photo, former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno gestures as he speaks at the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Coral Gables, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Dispelling online claims that he called on the Smithsonian Institution to cancel last week’s Puerto Rican Diaspora Activism Summit hours before it started, former governor of Puerto Rico Luis Fortuño clarified his position in an email to Futuro Media on Monday after saying he was “appalled” about the event in an earlier email to the Smithsonian.

An email dated on January 27 from Fortuño’s law office account and addressed to three members with Smithsonian accounts was shared with Latino Rebels, which is part of Futuro Media. In that email, Fortuño, a prominent pro-statehood proponent and Republican, expressed that he was “appalled” by the event, writing the following about the summit, which was scheduled to begin on January 28:

As a former Member of Congress representing the island (2005-08) and Governor of Puerto Rico (2009-12) I was appalled that the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of American History and the Smithsonian Latino Center sponsored the “Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora Summit.” Not only was this a dramatically lopsided event, but additionally it excluded the vast majority of the residents of the island.

Next time that you consider sponsoring such an event, I recommend that you contact the duly elected officials from the island. Both, the current Governor and the sole representative of the island in Congress (one Democrat and the other Republican) support granting equal rights and obligations of island residents by becoming a state of the union. The participants of this “summit” generally favored independence, which has not garnered more than 5% in any plebiscite in the last 50 years.

I trust that you will take this aspect into consideration next time that you decide to sponsor such an event. Thank you.

In a Monday February 1 email to Futuro Media, he clarified his position.

“I did not request for the cancellation of the event. I would have no reasons to oppose organizations or individuals from outside Puerto Rico that want to help in the recovery and reconstruction of our island from coordinating their efforts,” Fortuño wrote in the email. “Indeed, many of us anonymously partnered with non-for-profit organizations in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and have continued to be engaged in said effort.”

“However, I did raise my concern for part of the program the second day that seemed totally skewed and partisan. My only request was that in the future, the sponsors/organizers consider a more balanced composition for any panel that was political in nature. Status is a divisive issue, as you know. And there is a variety of opinions as to what the future of the island should be and how to accomplish said goal,” Fortuño added.

Fortuño’s January 27 email was one of seven inquires sent last week to various Smithsonian accounts in the lead-up to the diaspora summit, according to Melinda Machado, spokesperson and director of communications and marketing for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH).

Machado told Latino Rebels via email that some of the inquiries were complaints against a “Democracy and Self-Determination” panel that, according to her, “Smithsonian staff participating in the event were not aware of” and “did not take place.”

Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora (BUDPR), the organizers of the two-day summit, confirmed to Latino Rebels that it had postponed the “Democracy and Self-Determination” panel before the summit officially began on January 28. That decision, organizers said, came directly from them and not from any of the other organizations who collaborated on the summit. The organizations who collaborated with BUDPR were NMAH, the Smithsonian Latino Center (SLC), and the University of Puerto Rico-Cayey (UPR-Cayey).

“It was our decision and ours alone to postpone that panel,” BUDPR co-founder Edil Sepúlveda told Latino Rebels. “We wanted to avoid any unnecessary trouble of what turned out to be a very successful two-day summit that focused on grassroots efforts to help with Puerto Rico’s recent recovery and reconstruction efforts.”

When asked about the postponed “Democracy and Self-Determination” panel, Machado said that the “panel listing did not appear on any of the event agenda materials received by our Project Director. The first time any Smithsonian staff saw mention of that panel was in one of the inquiries we received, in which the writer attached an unofficial agenda that appeared to be circulating through social media.”

“No, Smithsonian staff did not request that any panel be canceled,” Machado noted.

That unofficial summit agenda cited by Machado was attached to at least one of the other seven inquires included in a January 26 email by Guillermo Mena. Mena, a very active statehood supporter and also the director of legislation, policy and advocacy for the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL), was calling attention to the fact that the proposed panel just featured speakers who did not support statehood.

Here is part of Mena’s January 26 email:

The speakers chosen are anti-Puerto-Rico-statehood activists, people who do not want equality for the American citizens of Puerto Rico. The participation of Boricuas Unidos en la Diáspora is even more disconcerting because that organization has engaged in a massive disinformation and defamation campaign regarding statehood supporters. In joining this event, the NMAH [National Museum of American History] is, at most, actively supporting colonialism and defamation or, at least, acting counter to the expressed will of the voters of Puerto Rico who have chosen statehood as the path forward.

The proposed speakers for the “Democracy and Self-Determination” panel were:

  • Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-NY)
  • Carmen “Yulín” Cruz, former San Juan mayor
  • Juan Dalmau, the Puerto Rican Independence Party 2020 candidate for Governor
  • Rafael Barnabe, a member of Puerto Rico’s Senate
  • Luis Gutiérrez, a former Congressman from Chicago

Latino Rebels contacted Velázquez’s office about whether the panel was cancelled. A staffer shared information that was tweeted out:

In a follow-up email, Mena suggested two solutions to keep the panel active—by “inviting pro-statehood speakers reflecting the majority view or by deleting that particular session from the program.”

“As it stands, from the Puerto Rico perspective, it is very much partisan in that it studiously excludes the views of the [current] Governor’s party and of the majority who voted for statehood (although they belong to multiple parties),” Mena added.

When asked if his email exchange was a result of his work duties with the NHCSL, Mena told Latino Rebels that he didn’t mean to send the email from his work account, “but again I don’t think it matters.” Mena explained that the email did not talk about the specific position of Hispanic state legislators and that if anyone checks out his Twitter profile, he has shared clear, personal opinions about his support for Puerto Rico statehood.

“Should the response change if you sent it from one email instead of another? I don’t think so,” Mena said.

According to BUDPR, three prominent pro-statehood supporters were invited to the panel—two of which declined and another never responded. BUDPR also said that the postponed panel is now scheduled for this Friday. It will be organized solely by BUDPR and no other organization.

“We will continue to focus on doing our work that is raising the voice of the experts, activists, civil society, and community-based organizations in Puerto Rico, and connecting them to the decision-makers in Washington. We will denounce any censorship, and we are certain that, after decades of persecution and oppression against Puerto Rican freedom fighters, no one will silence us anymore,” Sepúlveda told Latino Rebels.

On January 27, the same day Fortuño sent his email to the Smithsonian and the day before Mena sent his, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History issued a statement about the summit. The beginning part of the statement said the following:

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is researching, documenting and collecting around community-led efforts in Puerto Rico related to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the #RickyRenuncia movement and the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The museum’s participation and facilitation of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Activism Summit  Jan. 28 and 29 is part of this effort. The Smithsonian Latino Center is supporting this National Museum of American History project as part of its overall mission to increase awareness and access to Latino history, collections and resources. As a trust-instrumentality of the federal government, the Smithsonian is non-partisan and does not take political positions. Our scholarly interest is in community-led recovery efforts. For this summit, our curatorial team will be listening to various narratives and exploring avenues for future research. Participating in efforts like this summit allows us to identify potential object donors and expand our network in Puerto Rico.  

When Latino Rebels asked Machado on Monday if the Smithsonian properly vetted the summit, she said the following: “Our staff reached out to the University of Puerto Rico and BUDPR because of their reputation for connecting to community-led efforts for disaster response.”

Logos Removed and Sponsorship Questions

Besides the postponed panel, questions surrounding the use of logos and sponsorship also surfaced on social media.

On January 19, the Facebook page of BUDPR shared a promotional flyer of the summit, displaying NMAH and SLC logos, along with those of BUDPR and UPR-Cayey:

On January 29, the same image was posted but without the logos for NMAH and SLC:

The logo removals happened after the summit had already commenced on January 28. Latino Rebels asked Machado why the logos were removed and if this had anything to do with inquires the Smithsonian received. According to Machado, it was a question of what was approved and what wasn’t.

“Approval was provided in advance for use of the two logos (NMAH and SLC) for the original, generic flyer announcing the two-day event. However, the Smithsonian was unaware that the logos would also be placed on other event materials until they had been fully developed and distributed. Therefore, the organizers were asked to remove Smithsonian logos,” Machado said.

Sepúlveda confirmed that the Smithsonian notified BUDPR of the logo removals near the end of the summit’s first day and the logos were removed by the summit’s second day.

A Day 1 video of the summit still has the logos as the opening frame:

Subsequent videos of the summit no longer lead with logos:

The Smithsonian also confirmed that it was not a sponsor of the summit, contrary to what Fortuño wrote in his email.

“The Smithsonian Institution was not a financial sponsor of the event and no federal funds were used to produce the virtual program,” Machado said. “Our interest in collaborating on the summit was to allow our curatorial team to listen and document the discussions, particularly how the community responded to cascading crises, from Hurricane Maria to the COVID-19 pandemic. Our staff brainstormed on topics and educational objectives for the summit, but trusted conference organizers to select panelists. Two curators and one fellow participated in the opening of the summit and in its conclusion. The purpose of their participation was to listen, observe and to consider next steps for documenting—such as oral histories or future collecting of artifacts.”

Latino Rebels asked Machado about whether NMAH received SLC Latino Initiatives Pool funds for the event, as noted at the bottom of the summit’s official program.

“The National Museum of American History did receive Latino Initiatives Pool funds, which are administered through the Smithsonian Latino Center for our project, ‘Collective Care: Responding to COVID-19 in Puerto Rico’ to start a research and collecting initiative around that,” Machado said. “The summit was part of that effort but did not tap this funding source as the event was done through in-kind support and voluntary participation. My understanding is that a modest honorarium will be provided to the keynote speaker through National Museum of American History trust funds.”

Machado did note that SLC “was in receipt of an email that provided a ‘heads-up’ that there was concern about the summit and that the Center would receive an inquiry about it.” The Smithsonian would not provide further details about who wrote the email to SLC. Machado also said that other inquiries included “specific critiques of BUDPR as an organization.”

Editor’s Note: Julio Ricardo Varela, founder/publisher of Futuro Media’s Latino Rebels and the reporter of this story, moderated an extended January 29 session at the summit—the first part with a keynote speaker and the second part with a panel about advocacy. Throughout all his reporting on this story, he has disclosed this to all the people he contacted, sharing the following: “I will disclose that I moderated a session as a journalist on Friday where I said that nobody at the summit gave me any instructions of what questions I would ask, and I also said that I hope the Smithsonian holds more events like these for more Puerto Rican voices.”


Julio Ricardo Varela is founder and publisher of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media. He tweets from @julito77.