Ángel G. Quintero Rivera, Humanist of the Year 2009

In the troubadour’s art, which interweaves invention and memory, the popular improvisations often turn established meanings upside down. With his in-depth recounting of my career in the humanities, Arcadio Díaz Quiñones, following the example of the troubadours, has happily brought us to this lecture. I will keep my part short.

Thanks to the Puerto Rican Endowment for the Humanities. Thanks to Consuelo Gotay for his art. And thanks to Arcadio for his words and for his example. In reality, I would like to thank everyone – present and absent – with whom I have developed the kind of humanism that guides my work and my life. First, the ancestors, “the dead of my happiness,” in the words of Silvio Rodríguez (in his “Pequeña serenata diurna”); then to my colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico, particularly at the Center for Social Research (which, over time, has supported my work throughout my professional life); to my friends at CEREP (Center for Study of the Puerto Rican Reality), which Arcadio recalled; to my fellows with whom I tried to postulate a Civic Alternative to traditional politics; to the social and community movements that were part of the Miranda Foundation Prize to solidarity; to Margarita, Mareia, Ileana, ámbar… and all of my family, close and extended…

In fact, I am especially pleased to share the honors of this activity with my sister, Ana Helvia. Not just because she has always been the teacher, since we were children, and in the home as well as in the street, but also because, from different academic paths – she in mathematics and natural sciences, and I in the social sciences – we have converged in what my most recent book describes as ecological humanism.

Given the complete biographical sketch we heard from Arcadio, it may be unnecessary to read the paragraphs I wrote about the meaning of this humanism, in the face of a long and powerful tradition of conceiving humanity in contraposition to nature, with sad consequences for the future of our own existence. I just want to point out here my convergence with Ana Helvia in developing a different, alternative paradigm, in accord with the new concerns and sensibilities of our time. She, through her interest in education, in the human processes of understanding the supposed abstractions represented by numbers and their relationships, has emphasized the presence, relevance and importance of sensations and emotions – processes of an obvious corporal dimension – in the practices of reasoning. For my part, interested in the social relationships that develop in the work world, and the cultural practices associated with negotiations and conflicts produced by various dimensions of inequality, I discovered the fundamental importance of the worldviews implicit in aesthetic practices interwoven with expressions of the body: the popular sculpture of carving saints, for example, or the poly-centric dances of Afro-American music, which also mix with phenomena of learning that are sensual, rational and emotional.

For many years, for centuries, in its humanistic efforts to grant humanity free will over acts and events long seen as mysteries of the supernatural, Western thought has in large measure been dedicated to distinguishing between the human and nature: looking for and thinking about that which makes us different from the other animals and that could equip us with the divine that is understood as the supernatural. In this separation, the natural became an object that was intentionally distanced and upon which one acted, as a challenge to the rule of human will.

This conceptual separation was logically the basis for an internal existential separation between the mind and the body, which conceived reason as human while “exposing the body (supposedly our internal nature) to the spirit world” (in the words of Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano). This profoundly schizophrenic separation has been the pillar of a dominant train of thought, in which civilization is identified with reason, while nature – including the “passions” of the body, its urges and even its expressiveness! – is identified with barbarism.

Now is neither the time nor the place to discuss in depth the complex history of the sexist and racist implications of the path that led to this particular way of viewing humanity in contraposition to nature, including the nature within our own existence. I just want to emphasize that the ecological humanism in which I believe Ana Helvia and I have inserted ourselves, instead of emphasizing the differences between humanity and nature, visualizes both as interacting spheres of the same shared reality. The future of both, today called sustainability, cannot be based on notions of dominion, but rather on complementariness. I am not referring to a new theory about humanity and the environment, but rather changes in perspectives, priorities, paradigms and sensibilities that can lead to a space for dialogue and concerted actions from various points of view, practices and theories that are complementary.

The new paradigms and alternative visions are only partially developed from the intellectual work to which Ana Helvia and I have formally dedicated ourselves as part of the university. Most come from (at least at first) the social practices themselves, practices that intellectual work can, humbly, help to highlight. In fact, as a sociologist I have dedicated my greatest efforts to researching and analyzing the deep wisdom of a diversity of popular practices, initially in the solidarity of the history of labor movements and, later, in popular practices of aesthetic expression of our imagery, our music and its dances. The collective nature of these practices does not hide the presence of leaders. They are the products of a sophisticated tradition of local spontaneity, such as our Ismael Rivera, or enriched by the development of an erudite cosmopolitanism, such as with Campos Parsi or Ernesto Cordero, to focus on examples in our musical language. They are cultured popular expressions, such as the salsa compositions of Tite Curet Alonso, or the boleros of Silvia Rexach. Each and every one of them interacts with many anonymous contributors.

The rescue of ecological popular wisdom also includes the rediscovery of ancestral wisdom and social and historical practices. A good example of that ancestral wisdom would be the collective and energetic Afro-spiritualism of the powers (in and of – more than above — nature) present in the cultural polytheism of our popular Catholicism, with the varied virgins, saints and wise kings of marvelous carvings. And among these historical practices, the “do-it-yourself” nature of popular gastronomy, or the “art of getting by,” an act that is simultaneously biological and cultural, such as eating.

It is no coincidence, in my opinion, that today in Puerto Rico, the ecological struggles are fundamentally community-based. And their main enemies are large economic interests aimed at individual profit. I would like to conclude these brief words by sticking to the social commitment of the pedagogy and humanism I admire in my sister (like the commitment in the public sphere that I have also always admired, enormously, in Arcadio Díaz Quiñones). Ana Helvia and I, each in our own style, with different emphases, capacities, convictions and priorities, share the combination, inherited from our father, of research and reflection and university analysis inseparably related to the vocation of public involvement. And, in the good old tradition of labor and community struggles, in the face of established powers that oppose our shared principles of humanism, their character of defiance joins our different works. Along with so many people, organizations and movements with which we have shared concerns, projects and utopias, we will both be, above all, sibling witnesses to solidarity.

Author: Ángel G. Quintero Rivera
Published: April 29, 2015.

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