It was not until the crisis of the Great Depression in the 1930s — when the curtain was pulled back to reveal the misery produced by the colonial regime — that Protestants paid attention to the contradictions of the missionary ideology. In a period of 30 years, Puerto Rico had been converted into a large sugar plantation. The material and sociological conditions of the culture of the 19th century had disappeared. The forest ecology had been transformed by clear cutting for sugar cane. Sugar displaced coffee as an export product and, with it, the rural farming culture. Four large sugar corporations owned most of the land and the planting and production of sugar. Small subsistence farms were disappearing and rural workers were transformed into laborers for giant impersonal corporations with miserable salaries of 50 cents, 75 cents or $1.00 per day of work from 6:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening. The production of food was replaced by the importation of food, with a corresponding increase in prices. Thousands of rural workers eventually moved to the big city during the decade, forming the slums of the time. The mentality of the submissive tenant farm and day laborer in the countryside was transformed into the defiant union militant or into the mentality of the unemployed, without the cultural or moral inhibitions of the earlier society.
The 1930s, marked by the misery of the Depression, led to the rebellion that was seen in the birth of the Puerto Rican nationalist awareness of the 20th century and the union independence against its party, its union and the colonial regime. It was a decade in which the intellectuals of the time searched for a national identity. The colonial regime responded in two ways: on one hand, extending to Puerto Rico the social assistance programs of the welfare state policies the New Deal articulated for the nation. On the other hand, it appointed a general from the U.S. military as governor of the colony to stop the growing insurrection with brutal methods of repression. Pedro Albizu Campos, the leader of the Nationalist Party, was imprisoned, nationalists were persecuted and workers were suppressed.
Puerto Rico Evangélico, the magazine of the five most important Protestant denominations, which for 60 years had been the main voice of this movement, wrote about the “imperialism of the U.S. sugar corporations.” A Puerto Ricanist and nationalist sector arose among the Protestants. The day of the massacre of nationalists, known as “the Ponce Massacre,” the Rev. Hernández Valle, pastor of the Methodist Church, had been scheduled to give the speech of the day to the non-violent gathering of nationalists.
From this setting came Professor Domingo Marrero Navarro, a young theologian, and philosopher, who came to be a university pastor and professor of philosophy of religion, Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Evangelical Seminary, where he formed a school among his followers in the seminary, the university and among pastors. In 1937, Marrero wrote the article “Puerto Rico and Simon the Zealot,” for the Latin American Protestant theological magazine La Nueva Democracia (The New Democracy), in which he wrote about the new generation of Protestant nationalists on the continent and Latin American intellectuals of the era such as Alfonso Reyes, Fernando Ortiz, Juan Marinello, Jorge Mañach, Max Enríquez Ureña, Arturo Uslar Pietri and others. Although his greatest contribution to the island was as a teacher and a pastor, his best known works, Los fundamentos de la libertad (The Basis of Freedom), Meditaciones de Ia Pasión (Meditations on the Passion), Vísperas de la cruz (Vespers of the Cross), Las siete palabras (The Seven Words) and El Centauro: persona y pensamiento de Ortega y Gasset (The Centaur: Persona and Thought of Ortega y Gasset), written in a short period between 1949 and 1951, are permanent contributions to Puerto Rican and Latin American theological and philosophical thinking. Along with his colleague, Dr. ángel Mergal, he was part of the effort by Puerto Rican thinkers in the 1930s and 1940s to clarify the basis of Puerto Rican identity. Marrero Navarro approached the issue from a perspective of existentialism and prophecy that put him at odds with the regime, which saw him as a nationalist. He differed with the essentialist and Hispanophile perspectives of his Catholic colleagues who believed the essence of Puerto Rican culture and people were Hispanic and Catholic, closing off the future from history. Marrero thought of the identity of the culture and humans as a process: “Mankind does not just exist. Mankind evolves. It is a process of change and a range of possibilities. Mankind… is made of the future and hope…” “It is different from a house, whose essence lies in what it is. The essence of mankind… lies in what he can become…” Marrero died while he was Dean of General Studies at the University of Puerto Rico, a school that today carries his name.
His colleague, Dr. Ángel Mergal Llera, professor of Greek and the New Testament at the Seminary, confronted in his works the antimony between “the Hispano-Catholic and the Protestant,” with an existential affirmation of the identity of the human being like that of Marrero, but he dug deeper in his writings into literary, historical and theological ground. Mergal took on the task of directly facing the traditional conflict between Hispanicism and Protestantism in Reformismo cristiano y alma española (Christian Reformism and the Spanish Soul). Armed with his erudition as a Hispanicist and theologian, he argued for the existence of two Spains: the reformist and the orthodox. The orthodox repressed the reformist, destroying coexistence with the Muslims, Jews and Protestants, and thus destroying the entrance into modernity. From there, his research into Protestant movements, the Enlightenment and other reformers of the 16th century in Spain were collected in Evangelical Catholicism as Represented by Juan de Valdés. His most impressive and theologically mature works were Puerto Rico: Enigma promesa (Puerto Rico: Promise Enigma) and El reino permanente (The Permanent Kingdom), in which he established his encompassing theological conception of mankind and its spiritual destiny based on the integration of the body, soul and spirit. These works should be required reading for theology students today. His attachment to the canons of liberalism and doctrines of separation of church and state led him to lead Protestant opposition to the installation of religious instruction in the public schools in the 1940s and 1950s, which he wrote about in the small book Defensa de la educación democrática (Defense of Democratic Education). Contrary to Marrero Navarro, Mergal never passed judgment on liberal institutions and principles. Luis Rivera Pagán pointed out in Senderos teológicos: el pensamiento evangélico puertorriqueño (Theological Paths: Puerto Rican Evangelical Thought) how Mergal’s idealization of liberalism led him to ingenuous positions with respect to the United States during the Cold War. With these two thinkers, Protestantism put down roots in the island’s intellectual culture, elevating the contributions of the writers of Puerto Rico Evangélico to very high levels of erudition. They left behind the hegemony of the missionary ideology and the lack of theoretical awareness of the ideological nature of evangelical practice and theology that was unexamined from the perspective of the Puerto Ricans.
The 1930s also saw the birth of the so-called “1930s revival” as a popular religious expression of the poor, armed with a certain anti-American and classist nature. The Pentecostal prayer movements spread through some of the poor Protestant churches in a movement characteristic of the “sect and church” theories of Troeltsch, where battered social sectors emerged in collective explosions of apocalyptic hope and finally confronted the rejection and theological resistance of the missionary authorities that held the titles to the buildings. The authorities were forced to retreat and negotiate. A Protestant cultural dimension then arose that was popular in nature and affirmed the national culture and the poor, arising hand in hand with the decade and setting down deeper roots, although distanced from the nationalist political movement.
This article was adapted by the Editorial Team.
Author: Samuel Silva Gotay
Published: March 30, 2016.
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