Frank Bonilla

Photo from the Voces Oral History Center, Moody College of Communication, The University of Texas at Austin.

Puerto Rican, Sociology, Activism

Frank Bonilla


Dr. Frank Bonilla was an academic researcher and early pioneer of Puerto Rican Studies, serving as the first director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at the City University of New York. He was known for his commitment to social justice, and he mentored and provided pathways into academia for many future scholars of color including Juan Flores, Ramona Hernández, and Aubrey W. Bonette. The child of migrants from Puerto Rico, Bonilla was born in New York City in 1925. He grew up in the racially and linguistically diverse neighborhoods of East Harlem and the Bronx. His first trip to Puerto Rico came on the heels of his service in the US Army during World War II as part of a Puerto Rican unit. This experience helped him process and confirm his Puerto Rican identity and cement his interest in research and scholarship. Bonilla received his Bachelor’s of Business Education cum Laude (1948) at the College of the City of New York. Afterwards, he worked on academic and commercial research projects that took him across Latin America, while also earning his MA in sociology (1954) at New York University. His graduate studies culminated in a PhD in sociology at Harvard in 1959, after which he joined the American Universities Field Staff to collaborate on a research program with UNESCO. 

Bonilla was a pioneer for the advancement of social sciences in Latin America. His analytical work in Brazil led to the founding of the Brazilian Center for Research and Analysis by future Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. His work often bridged scholarship across international institutions. As a political science professor at MIT, he collaborated with the Central University of Venezuela on a research program on Venezuelan politics.

In 1973, Bonilla came to the City University of New York from a professorship at Stanford to become the inaugural director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, where he remained until his retirement in 1995. The first publications of the Center were collective, a testament to his belief in the collaborative writing experience and as an important tool for bringing up young scholars into academic publishing. Frank Bonilla brought his experiences, connections, and perspective to keep the work of the Center connected to Puerto Ricans on the island, to other communities of color around the country, and to institutions across Latin America. The Frank Bonilla Public Intellectual Award was created in his honor by the Latin American studies Association.

Relevant publications include:

Teaching Guide that accompanies the documentary The Legacy of Frank Bonilla produced by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2011,

Borderless Borders: U.S. Latinos, Latin Americans, and the Paradox of Interdependence (2000), co-edited with Edwin Meléndez, Rebecca Morales, and María de los Angeles Torres

Student Politics in Chile (1970)

Cristina Diaz-Carrera

(coming soon)