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Latinos lament likely loss of Clemente name if P.S. 19 is closed

This story originally appeared in Spanish in El Diario, which supplied the translation.

P.S. 19, the Roberto Clemente School, is Annabel Cabal’s second home.

“Three generations of my family have been shaped by this school and I am grateful for the years I had here as a student and for what they’ve done for my kids,” said Cabal, who serves as the president of the school’s parent-teacher board.

For 40 years, the Clemente name has branded P.S. 19, paying tribute to a hero as famous for his humanitarian missions as for his baseball milestones.

Clemente, a Puerto Rican, became the first Hispanic baseball player to reach 3,000 hits, including 240 home runs. The former Pittsburgh Pirate died in an airplane crash on New Year’s Eve of 1972, while he was on route to take supplies to Nicaraguan victims of an earthquake.

On Thursday, the city’s Panel for Educational Policy is expected to approve the closure of P.S. 19. The Department of Education has categorized it as a low-performing school. A number of heated protests and meetings have taken place around the proposed closure.

Aside from stirring debates, the shuttering of schools also seems to do away with their names. P.S. 19 could disappear and be replaced with another school, all in the same building on 325 South 3rd St, in Brooklyn.

But the Roberto Clemente name would not necessarily transfer over.

Angel Salón has lived for 38 years in “Los Sures,” the Spanish nickname for the south-side streets that run through Williamsburg.

“All of my kids have been students at P.S. 19 and this school is part of my family,” he said. The closing would be a low blow, he said. “If they do it, the meaning of his name also fades because it is a tribute to great athlete who died for a just cause.”

Maria Morales, the parent coordinator at P.S. 19, agrees. “[The closing is] a slap at our heritage. Like Clemente, we have struggled and came here to be good examples in this country.”

Local elected officials who represent the neighborhood, including City Councilwoman Diana Reyna and Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, see the closure of P.S. 19 as an attempt to acommodate a charter school that caters to newer residents — at the expense of the long-established Latino community.

Antonio Reynoso, Reyna’s chief of staff and a former student at the Roberto Clemente School, called the move “part of systematic displacement” of Latinos from Williamsburg.

“The city is not concerned about preserving the local character of our neighborhoods. If the building is not called Roberto Clemente, then it doesn’t represent the character of the Latino community,” he said.

Esteban Durán, an activist with the community organization El Puente, said that public spaces named for Hispanics like Maria Hernández — who is believed to have been killed by drug dealers after standing up to them — and Roberto Clemente are important markers of a community’s identity.

“Losing them would negate what millions of Latinos have contributed to this country,” Durán said. “It would be a defeat that would reflect how politics and economics have infringed on our culture.”

The DOE does not have a policy on the naming of schools. A spokesman for the department indicated that a community could propose a name for a new school. Chancellor Dennis Walcott would have the final word.

The fate of P.S. 19 rests on a panel stacked with mayoral appointees. The Clemente name — all of the cultural and historical significance it has — could have a fairer day if the community goes to bat.

Meanwhile, Clemente’s family is also lamenting the potential closure of a school bearing his name.

Vera Clemente raised her voice when she heard that the closure of a public school could also mean the loss of a tribute to her husband.

“My husband still lives in the minds of children and youths,” she said. “It is a shame that organizations honoring his memory and values are disappearing.”

The goodwill ambassador for Major League Baseball has traveled the world to honor Roberto Clemente’s memory. “In so many places, there are installations bearing his name,” she said. “The community is always proud and feels that his legacy is a part of them.”

Even when they have read about him, “children always want to know more about how his life was, and also how he was able to be so successful in baseball,” she added.

Their son José Roberto Clemente expressed sadness at the news about P.S. 19 and said his family would  back any movement to save the school’s name.

“Right now we are working on a project with the MLB to unite all of the schools and sports leagues named after my father,” he said. “It would be sad to have one disappear.”

The association in formation would continue Clemente’s legacy of generosity and could offer scholarships for students and and support services for victims of natural disasters.

El Diario is New York City’s oldest and largest Spanish-language newspaper. Read more education news from El Diario.