Ever since she can remember, Elena has always wanted to be a teacher. She recalls, “I was that annoying kid who said, ‘Let me read you a book!’” Even at a young age, she recognized her curiosity about the world and her drive for learning.
In 5th grade, Elena’s work in U.S. history won her the “Outstanding Award” from the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Even though she couldn’t be part of the DAR because of her Puerto Rican ancestry, it was the acknowledgement and encouragement she received from them that pushed her to continue studying history. “I realized I was good at it and wanted to keep being good at it,” she explains.
Starting in middle school, Elena began to question why Puerto Rican history was largely missing from the United States history curriculum. After learning about Puerto Rican history from her mom, Elena felt a responsibility to rethink traditional narratives of U.S. history. She wanted to know why certain perspectives are simply absent or silenced. After all, she asks rhetorically, “How can Americans know so little about their own colony, perpetuating the myth that Puerto Ricans are foreign rather than U.S. citizens by birth?”
Elena’s research at Michigan focuses on Puerto Rican community development, social movements, and racial solidarity between Latinx and Black Americans in twentieth-century New England. Scholarship on Puerto Rican communities in New York, Florida, and California is well known, Elena explains, which is why she plans to bring more attention to the history of the New England region. Having grown up in Hartford, Connecticut, Elena is in a position to make a unique contribution to existing historical scholarship: “I have a special voice being someone from there and part of the community.”
Elena, like many graduate students at Michigan, decided to take a year off after completing undergrad to ensure that a History PhD was her true calling. After turning in her honors thesis and receiving her BA from Connecticut College, she set off for Nashville, Tennessee, to work for Conexión Américas. There, she taught English as a Second Language (ESL) and organized programs focused on eradicating racism and sexism, and developing community engagement and spirituality.
Working in this “intentional community” allowed Elena to identify what was truly important to her and reaffirmed her desire to continue with graduate studies. To anyone thinking of doing a PhD, she says, “Ask yourself, who are you doing this for? Is it your family? Your community? You have to live with it day by day so you really have to make sure you’re happy.” Elena continues to be motivated by all the underrepresented students she hopes to give back to in the future. She remembers what it took, as a first-generation college student, to get to where she is. Programs like the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Program, the Institute for the Recruitment of Teachers (IRT), and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) were instrumental in keeping her focused and inspired. She is passionate about playing that kind of support forward for other students as a researcher and teacher.
Elena is excited to complete her qualifying exams and will set off soon thereafter to begin research for her dissertation.