January 12, 2022

Ana Roqué: Dynamic Founding Figure of the University of Puerto Rico

What does the Edificio José de Diego— a National Register listed building on the University of Puerto Rico's Mayagüez campus—indicate about this university’s history and its unsung founder, Ana Roqué Giegel de Duprey? Born in 1853, Roqué came from a family of teachers; her parents and grandmother were also educators. A teaching prodigy, she opened her own school out of her family home when she was only 13 years old.

But as Roqué grew up, she realized that training other people to teach was one of her primary passions. Ultimately, Roqué taught generations of Puerto Ricans, both in and out of the classroom; broke ground as a botanist; embraced science as a tool for social good; and led a powerful movement for women’s right to vote.

Exterior view of a building with a central tower. There are steps leading up to the main entryway.

photo by: Joapsk8 via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Edificio José de Diego at the Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico. This is one of the few surviving buildings that was built during Roqué’s lifetime.

Furthering Education in Puerto Rico

After Roqué started her first school as a teenager, she spent years teaching across Puerto Rico. One of her first jobs was in Arecibo, where she juggled her teaching with studying to earn her own bachelor’s degree. Roqué’s passion for learning paid off when she became a director for a teacher’s training program in San Juan in 1899. By 1902, Roqué had started the College of Mayagüez and a teacher’s academy. The College later grew into the contemporary Mayagüez campus of the University of Puerto Rico

Roqué became a founding figure for the University of Puerto Rico, in Mayagüez and beyond. She contributed to the development of the Río Piedras university campus in 1903. Fitting to Roqué’s legacy, the first department at the Río Piedras campus grew out of a normal school—a training school for teachers—the Escuela Normal Industrial. With Roqué’s guidance, this normal school developed into what is now the College of Education at Río Piedras. The first graduating class consisted of thirteen teachers.

Over a century later, Roqué’s passion for teaching lives on at the university. Between 2018 and 2019, nearly 200 students graduated from the Río Piedras campus’ College of Education.

A Study in Eclecticism

This historic structure of the Edificio José de Diego is remarkable because of its eclecticism, much like Roque herself. When the building was nominated for the National Register for Historic Places in 1977, an architect described the style as “an attempt at neoclassical symmetry and simplicity, along with the balustrades and the columns and ornament framing the windows, doors and the tower. However, these are then mixed with the roofing tile of Mediterranean character and detail ornamentation which is closer to the Moorish.”

Roqué helped found the Mayagüez campus in 1911, and the Edificio José de Diego is an important monument to the early days of the university. The first building at the location was damaged during an earthquake, but the current Edificio José de Diego was under construction in 1913. When first erected, the building was rectangular, its original focal point the balustrades and columns decorating the otherwise simple stonework facade.

Portrait of a stately older woman in a black dress with a white collar and black bow.

photo by: Juan Costa/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Ana Roqué de Duprey, by the painter López de Victoria. This portrait is from the collection of the Corporación de las Artes Musicales.

The Edificio José de Diego has adapted over time to preserve older elements while installing new ones. For example, there are original wooden window shutters, but the school installed miami aluminum louvers. A prominent tower now stands from the center of the building, and the floorplan has expanded into a T-shape instead of the original rectangle.

The Edificio José de Diego is one of the few surviving buildings at any of the eleven University of Puerto Rico campuses that was built during Roqué’s lifetime.

Documenting Puerto Rico’s Natural Landscape

A detailed view of a spread in Ana Roqué's Botánica Antillana. Beautifully laid out script with brightly colored images of leaves and plants.

photo by: Juan Costa/Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

A page from the Botánica Antillana which has over 400 drawings in color and 150 in black and white, some by Roqué. For more on this book read the article from the Center for Investigative Journalism which is linked in the text.

In its early days, the Edificio José de Diego hosted science classes. Roqué likely would have been interested in many of these courses. She was voracious for new information, especially science. Roqué studied the stars, and her work left some of the members of the Paris Society of Astronomers starstruck; at a time when few women were permitted into scientific societies like the Paris Society of Astronomers, Roqué earned an honorary membership.

But as interested as she was in astronomy, her specialty was botany. As Roqué traveled and taught around the island, she took notice of the flora around her. She compiled Botánica Antillana, which is an anthology of Roqué’s thirty notebooks describing over 6,000 species of plants and trees in Puerto Rico and across the Caribbean.

Some botanists consider Roqué to be one of the most important botanists in the Americas during the early 20th century. Some Puerto Ricans, like farmers and people who practice home remedies, continue to rely on Botánica Antillana as an important reference manual.

Fighting for Women’s Equality

During Roqué’s lifetime, women could not hold leadership positions—or even an equal vote— in politics. While Roqué was teaching about pedagogy, she also was working to educate Puerto Ricans about gender equity.

Roqué embraced literature as a platform to advocate for suffrage and women’s rights. In 1898, Roqué created La Mujer, the first magazine for women in Puerto Rico. She also wrote 32 novels and numerous short stories, many of which involved feminist themes. While some of Roqué’s novels and stories were widely circulated, she wrote under a couple of pseudonyms, one of which was Flora del Valle: flower of the valley. Now, Roqué is fondly remembered with this pen-name.

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After the Spanish-American War, the United States claimed ownership over Puerto Rico. This sociopolitical climate pointed to many changes for Puerto Ricans: the incorporation of more English classes in schools, fears of cultural upheaval, and new legislators running to represent the island. While the 1917 Jones Act named Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens, only men could vote. Roqué joined other Puerto Rican women to establish Liga Femínea Puertorriqueña, or The Puerto Rican Feminine League. This group made history as the first organization for women’s suffrage in Puerto Rico.

While the 19th Amendment gave white women on the mainland the ability to vote, Puerto Rican women did not have the same suffrage rights. But Roqué continued to fight for women’s right to vote, and she imagined a future in which women could hold public office. In 1919, Roqué argued that women could enrich their families and Puerto Rico as a whole if they could participate in legislation: “When she goes to legislate in the House, she does so in compliance with her divine duty as a mother … she works for the good of all society’s children, whose mothers gave their vote and elected her as their representative to this grand assembly of our people’s government.”

In 1935, Roqué’s vision became a reality, and universal suffrage was enacted in Puerto Rico, two years after her death.

Like the architecture of the Edificio José de Diego, Ana Roqué Giegel de Duprey’s was multifaceted, and she used her passions to improve the lives of her students and her community members. Roqué might not recognize the large university campuses that now stand at the sites of her normal schools. But Roqué was never afraid of change, and her memory and values persist at the university that she helped create.

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Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

Every place has a woman's story to tell. Through Where Women Made History, we are identifying, honoring, and elevating places across the country where women have changed their communities and the world.

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