To the Editor: When the students at P.S. 398 voted to re-name their building The Hector Figueroa School last week, it instantly became a better place. They were clearly motivated to live up to the ideals and legacy of the late labor leader who accomplished so much and was in the noblest sense a “common man.”
He was a social-justice warrior and a maker of peace. He struggled for the betterment of all people and his victories served society far beyond the members of his union. He figures prominently in the big picture of democratic activism and advocacy.
Biographical details of his life make inspiring reading and a model path and purposeful mission for a new generation. He contributed a huge amount to move us forward as a viable society.
Ranking right up there among human-engineered miracles is the $19 per hour minimum wage by the fall of 2023 that Figueroa wrested from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for workers at the three main metropolitan area airports.
That may sound like an “over-the-top” description, but it was nothing short of an historic achievement. Anybody familiar with that agency knows that it would be easier to do root-canal on a non-anesthetized crocodile.
The 170,000 members of 32BJ SEIU were the immediate constituency whose rights he championed as their union president. But Figueroa was also instrumental, in some cases decisive, in securing fairness for countless other people in the spectrum of workplaces.
The $15 minimum wage was in part a fruit of his tactical skills, political sophistication and moral authority.
Making strides for justice against entrenched systems and obstinate traditions takes a rare combination of strengths and virtues.
Since his death last July, the tributes to Figueroa have all been glowing, but the naming of the school in Jackson Heights is particularly illuminating because it shows the bond between his values and the aspirations of its students.
Concepts like social and economic justice may seem a bit precocious for elementary school aged kids, but it says somewhere that “out of the mouths of babes” comes wisdom. Those students who voted to name their school after Hector Figueroa knew exactly what they were doing, and we should be proud of them that they did.
In New York City, it’s not unusual that schools or other infrastructure are named after people, but it’s rare that there’s a direct link to that person or that the honor was deserved rather than merely bestowed. There are even bridges with split personalities these days.
My neighborhood school and its adjacent park are named after some guy too obscure to rate a Wikipedia page or footnote in the local archives. I’ve asked around and nobody knows who he was.
In my community, there’s also a street with two names with dual signage, one in green and the other in blue, bearing the name of a former legislator who founded a family political dynasty whose remnants got the next best thing to seeing their dad’s name in lights.
And there’s an intersection given over to the name of a departed civic association gadfly. All these are like vanity plates.
Also consider the naming of great concert halls and sports stadiums not after artists or athletes, but moguls magnates and corporations instead. Why should Lincoln Center performance venues be named for Charles Koch or David Geffen and not, say, Leonard Bernstein or George Gershwin?
Why Red Bull Stadium or MetLife Stadium?
The name of Hector Figueroa is a perfect fit for a school that embraces all children regardless of any kind of status or classification, and offers them full access to quality education. They do so naturally and passionately.
The only other school I know that is also aptly named is the Albert Shanker School, which is also in Queens.
What’s in a name?
Sometimes there’s an almost hypnotic suggestiveness or “self-fulfilling prophecy,” in which people cause things to happen because they believe so deeply that they are so destined that they act to assure they will.
The students at Hector Figueroa Elementary School have great faith in Figueroa’s life. Young as they are, they are eager to replicate his message and make it their own.
You can bet they’ll do their share to heal the world one day.
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