Puerto Rico: Culture Constructed

In 1898, the USA took control of Puerto Rico after almost 400 years of colonization by Spain, and its influence quickly began to infiltrate into all sectors of Puerto Rican society. Threatened by the Americanization of their nation and the prospect of losing their place of societal control, the landowning elite constructed a national identity that appeared to unify all under one shared culture and history. In reality, it gave authority to only a few. The dominant ruling class successfully formed and implemented hegemonic principles to create a cultural policy ostensibly promoting unification of its multi-cultural Spanish, Taino Indian, and African heritage.

One nation’s cultural identity can be defined by its relation to another. Although the Spanish ruled Puerto Rico since its discovery in 1493, the island was neglected as Spanish ships bypassed its shores to dock in richer ports. The landowning elite of Puerto Rico, mostly direct descendants of Spanish settlers, ruled over the population of African descendants and immigrants from neighboring islands in the traditional feudalism of its colonizers until the arrival of the Americans. As soon as the US occupation began, a rapid reorganization occurred in the political, educational, and economic institutions of the island, transforming the hacienda economy into a US commercial enterprise (Davila 1997). Threatened by Americanization’s impingement on their land and political interests, “the early twentieth century saw an upsurge in local interest in the island’s national identity” (Davila 1997: 25).

As the once-dominant elite sought to define the nation in the face of American occupation, they returned to the legacy of Spanish colonization and Catholicism to emphasize homogeneity and the idea of family. Davila (1997) explains that, whether promoting a national identity of diversity or homogeneity, some people and certain elements of culture are glorified in society while others are shunned and categorized as “the other.” In the 1930s, hispanidad programs emphasized the distinctive traits of Puerto Rican culture in comparison to those of the American occupiers. Hispanidad was associated with civilization while the cultural traits linked to the USA were referred to as “the Nordic barbarism of the invader” (Davila 1997: 26). In this way, the Puerto Rican elite denied the categorization of “the other” by asserting a cultural validity that transcended American commercialism.

It soon became apparent that this approach was not sufficient to counteract the threat of Americanization because of the rapid political, economic, and educational changes that had occurred in Puerto Rican society. As Franz Fanon (1963) wrote in his book, On National Culture:

It is not enough to try to get back to the people in that past out of which they have already emerged . . . [there is] the need for creative forward looking strategies to shape national identity rather than simply a reliance on the past, which describes the national identity of another time. (Quoted in Davila 1997: 24)

In order to regain political control of the island, the elite turned to country’s spiritual needs though the creation of cultural programs like the Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO) and later the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP). These programs promoted cultural nationalism through cultural policies that served to define the commonwealth (Davila 1997).

The elite, composed of landowners, politicians, and intellectuals, began to disseminate their own cultural principles to the rest of the island by establishing hegemony over the subordinate class. Educational theorists Feinberg and Soltis (2004) define hegemony as “having a preponderance of influence and authority over others.” The earliest example of hispanidad illustrates their power over the island through the promotion of Spanish customs, such as flamenco and lace making, which until the 1930s had not been a part of the island’s culture. These customs are present today and considered part of Puerto Rican heritage. The cultural policy caused people to internalize power relations and “believe themselves to be persons having a certain nature” (Prado 1995: 88).

In the 1950s, the elite realized that the state was not sufficient to establish hegemony and that other mechanisms such as cultural and religious institutions were needed. Louis Althusser refers to these institutions as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) because of their promotion of hegemonic principles through art, literature, music, and especially education (Feinberg and Soltis 2004). Critical theorists have argued that the promotion of the views of the dominant stratum permeated school curricula. Students are conditioned to internalize these views as part of being “productive” citizens in society (Feinberg and Soltis 2004).

DIVEDCO and later ICP were ISAs (Ideological State Apparatuses) with cultural programs using a top-down, center-periphery approach. Much like Malraux’s network of maisons de la culture that are present throughout the French provinces, the ICP based in San Juan established cultural centers in provinces throughout the island. These ICP cultural centers became the primary vehicles to disseminate the official principles of patria and the racial triad. Patria, meaning homeland or nation, became a symbol of the nation’s people rather than the nation itself; their way of life, “spirit, folksongs, the way of getting along with each other” (Munoz Marin 1959, quoted in Davila 1997: 32). The other cultural principle was the construction of the three races, las tres razas, comprising Spanish, Tafno Indians and African descendants. Together these elements constitute the modern Puerto Rican identity.

The dominant Spanish race asserted a status of cultural primacy through the ICP to disseminate the notion of a unified Hispanic heritage. Even though the Taino were effectively eradicated soon after the arrival of the Spanish through harsh labor and a lack of immunity to European diseases. African peoples took their place as slaves. The ICP, nevertheless, painted a picture of peaceful coexistence and symbiosis through posters, festivals, literature, and educational materials. Similar to the description of the traveling cultural tours of Norway, the ICP’s traveling conference program presents this racial triad with cultural representations for each such as “the Afro-Caribbean vejigante masks, the Hispano-Christian wood saints, and the indigenous hammocks” (Davila 1997: 65). This cultural policy of a unified heritage ignores the tensions and violence that existed and still exist between these groups.

Although the tres razas are presented as equally contributing to Puerto Rican history, it is clear that the authors of cultural policy, through their control of ICP activities, have valorized each race. As a whole, the hierarchy of the three races in the cultural heritage of Puerto Rico gives the most credit to the “discoverers” and the least credit to the African slaves. Davila (1997) finds that Afro-Caribbean rhythms like the bomba were not approved by the ICP until the late 1970s because they were thought to be “too black and primitive” (p. 67). Spanish culture, however, holds the highest place in Puerto Rican culture because of its association with religion and language, boasting the most prestigious crafts of the three, such as “santos (wood saints) and mundillo (Spanish lace)” (Davila 1997: 70).

The mythical Tafno race serves as a middle ground to which many traditions that are not Spanish are credited. Many festivals credit Puerto Rican customs, such as drinking coconut milk, cooking with cassava, and folk art, as originating from Tafno culture as a way to show authenticity (Davila 1997). In fact, Davila (1997) relates that “none of the festivals I visited . . . emphasized the African component directly without appealing to the triad” (p. 71). In this way, ICP program activities portray the African race as not positively contributing to the national identity. Although the ICP cultural policy is to portray a unified heritage, its hegemonic ideals valorize some groups and reject others.

So strong is the myth of the Tafno legacy that its name for the island has become synonymous with Puerto Rico. At the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City on June 11, 2006, participants waved banners and wore T-shirts proudly proclaiming their Boricua heritage. Boricua, which has come to mean Puerto Rican, is derived from the Tafno name for the island, Boriken, which evolved into Boriquen (Jacobs 1992). Island resident and descendant singers like Daddy Yankee and Jennifer Lopez have incorporated this indigenous name into hip hop and reggaeton as a way of demonstrating pride for their cultural identity (Samponaro).

Though the ICP has been successful in resurrecting and reinventing the Tafno heritage to be incorporated into Puerto Rican heritage through music, art, religion, and literature, it appears to have taken precedence over the much venerated Spanish culture for many Puerto Ricans. This might be attributed to the fact that Spanish culture has been associated with “high culture” in ICP programs while the Tafno culture is more accessible and “authentic” for popular consumption in music, folk art, and festivals. Though the myth of the tres razas has served as an established hegemonic principle of the ICP-driven Puerto Rican cultural policy for over five decades, it cannot conceal the tensions that continue to exist between racial groups in Puerto Rico, who consider themselves neither Spanish nor African. Therefore, the Tafno culture serves as a unifying characteristic as Puerto Ricans continue to develop their national cultural identity. At the same time, as political and intellectual elites “attempt to control the new agents elaborating views of Puerto Rican identity,” (Davila 1997: 262) current official ICP definitions of Puerto Rican culture are likely to change.

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