Here's the text I read at Helen's memorial service in Gainesville on December 21.
Years before I met Helen Safa, I had a powerful image of her. The image came from a photograph featured in her classic 1974 book, "The Urban Poor of Puerto Rico," translated as "Familias del arrabal" in 1980. In that photograph, Helen appears as a radiant Amazonian woman, with her signature grin and a colorful dress, carrying a Puerto Rican child, probably from a public housing project in Santurce, where she conducted fieldwork for her doctoral dissertation between 1959 and 1960.
That's why I immediately recognized her when I first met her at an Old San Juan café, during a feminist meeting one night in the early 1980s. As a graduate student beginning my own research on the Island, I was initially in awe of Helen's physical and academic stature. But her informality and approachability quickly made me feel at ease.
During the next three decades, I got to know her well and at some point became one of her "adopted sons and daughters," a network of scholars in the social sciences and the humanities scattered throughout the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Like any good mother, Helen kept in constant contact to nurture us intellectually, connect us to each other, and sometimes scold us for having missed this or that conference or for not publishing that article she liked so much in a decent journal.
I was never Helen's formal student—like other accomplished anthropologists and sociologists such as María Patricia Fernández-Kelly, Lynn Bolles, Yolanda Prieto, Mary Garcia Castro, Liliana Cotto, or Carmen Angélica Pérez—and I therefore don't feel the loyalty or gratitude of a true disciple. Furthermore, I didn't specialize in the study of women and development, like my esteemed Puerto Rican colleagues Alice Colón-Warren, María del Carmen Baerga, Luz del Alba Acevedo, and Luisa Hernández Angueira, or the Dominican sociologists Magaly Pineda and Milagros Ricourt, and the Cuban sociologist Marta Núñez, who built on and expanded Helen's insights in their own work.
Nevertheless, I recognize Helen's enormous intellectual and professional influence on my academic career. My Ph.D. dissertation on the Cuban community in Puerto Rico extensively cites her pioneering ethnography of San Juan. As I wrote my thesis, I incorporated her early essays on Caribbean migration and cultural identity in my analysis. Somewhere I still keep a memorable letter Helen wrote me in the mid-1980s, congratulating me for publishing one of my first articles on salsa music. She later chaired the search committee that brought me to Gainesville to work as Assistant Director of the Center for Latin American Studies in 1987-88. Helen and her first husband Manou helped my wife Diana and I feel at home in Gainesville. She and her second husband John were the perfect hosts during my stint as a Visiting Scholar at UF in 2007.
Many of Helen's research and teaching interests coincided with my own, including urban anthropology, Caribbean studies, migration, ethnicity, nationalism, race, and popular culture. When Helen retired in 1997, I felt as if I had inherited some of her main intellectual concerns—but that was too heavy a burden to bear. Fortunately, Helen continued to write, publish, present papers, and travel around the globe, accompanied by John. She remained extremely active in the anthropological profession as well as in the interdisciplinary field of Latin American and Caribbean studies for 16 years after her official retirement. We often saw each other at academic events in places as far away from each other as Gainesville, San Juan, Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, and Amsterdam. I struggled to keep up with Helen, who always managed to take on a new research project, a lecture to give in a different country, or another colleague she wanted to collaborate with.
Anyone close to Helen knew how important were ties of reciprocity, solidarity, and mutual aid for her—as they were for many of the Caribbean women she studied for more than five decades—as well as her generous encouragement of younger scholars and graduate students, especially women from the Caribbean and particularly from Puerto Rico. The word "mentor" describes well this facet of Helen's legacy. Her numerous contributions to anthropology, women's and gender studies, and Latin American and Caribbean studies are not limited to her extensive publications, but encompass a whirl of teaching, lecturing, leading seminars, organizing conference panels, tutoring and supervising theses, raising funds, mounting campaigns, serving on numerous professional committees and advisory boards, writing letters of recommendation and evaluations for tenure and promotion, and—according to some Dominican sources—even supporting popular struggles against dictatorial regimes. A dynamic public intellectual, she never divorced her academic work from her practical commitments as a citizen.
For myself, I can attest to her untiring efforts to insert Puerto Rico and the Caribbean in the conceptual map of the U.S. academy, which still pays relatively little attention to the region. She was a staunch believer in institutionalizing Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Latino Studies in the United States, as well as a promoter of social change, equality, and justice for the people she studied, identified with, and loved so dearly. Contrary to many other U.S. scholars, Helen continued to travel back to Puerto Rico, actively engaged with the Island's intellectuals, and kept abreast of recent developments there. Thus, she often returned to her roots as a young scholar with a broad smile and embracing a child from a poor neighborhood in San Juan, which is how I'll always remember her.