What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

This is a compilation of essays on topics that, according to the Puerto Rico Foundation for the Humanities, serve the Puerto Rican community as elements of social cohesion. Its purpose is to stimulate thoughtful conversation on such topics. The elements studied by the authors of the essays are: identity, democratic tradition, gastronomy, music, religious sentiment and sports. Each essay presents the author’s view on the manifestation of these elements in society through a mixture of values shared by Puerto Ricans. These essays represent the textual base for the conversations carried on in the radio and television programs that accompany this book.

In the project What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?, the need to identify socially distinct elements that express consensus stands out. Consensus, among other things, can facilitate the combination of conditions that make greater social cohesion feasible, as well as the strengthening of democratic processes.

We hope this exchange allows us to bring to light those values shared by Puerto Ricans in spite of their ideological, economic or social differences. We took into account a conscience of affinity to generate unity of collective purpose, making the success of alternative projects that benefit all sectors of this society possible. The initiative of the Puerto Rico Foundation for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Humanities sponsorship of the program We the People and the participation of the University System Ana. G. Méndez to bring this explanation of shared values to fruition represent an effort of vital importance to explore, investigate and study in depth international contemporary issues such as globalization and cultural diversity. On the other hand, it allows studying and challenging other local issues of current importance such as the trivialization of politics, social violence and mistrust of citizens toward government officials and institutions. We hope an alternative future for the island is visualized and created through these explanations.

To develop the texts, a group of experts, researchers and creators were selected to contribute their thought provoking ideas in a public dialogue, away from offensive phrases frequently made with minimum reflection. These essays, and their accompanying radio and television programs, will serve as a resource for others. They will contribute to the understanding of the experience of Puerto Rico and its people through its history; also, its close relationship to the history of the United States and Spain. The historical and social context framing the essays includes, among other topics, the expansion of the liberal estate, the mobilization of minorities- starting with Afro-Americans, sexual liberation, feminism, wars against poverty, and global multi-polarity.

In this book, conversations are provoked through the discussion of the following argumentative essay topics: differentiation of Puerto Ricans as an ethnic group in view of the imminent possibility of a global culture, economic globalization, political paradigm shifts and massive migration waves; the preference for democratic processes as a channel to resolve political conflicts; the tendency towards production and consumption of local products and the development of local gastronomy; preference for musical expression as an summary of our diverse cultural heritage and social history; the adaptation to different ways of expressing religious sentiment; and the use of official political symbols to collectively celebrate sports victories. The authors offer explanations about some shared elements within Puerto Rico’s society, and provide a printed code to engage in a conversation regarding the sense of unity each of the presented social values engender, and their use as an example to continue a search that identifies other social values revealing social consensus.

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

In Roberto Gándara’s essay, The Labyrinth of Identity, he explains the problems posed by our ethnic differentiation in light of the imminent possibility of a global culture, economic globalization, political paradigms shifts and massive migrations. He also presents, as suggested by German author Günther Grass, the possibility of the coexistence of two definitions for the concept of identity: the national political identity and the cultural identity. Both authors agree that one definition doesn’t counteract the other. Following Grass’ line of thought, Gándara stresses the value of cultural identity as a predominant element for Puerto Ricans, regardless of their place of residence. He highlights the former in his essay as follows: “It’s annoyingly known how Puerto Rican individuals and families that migrate to the United States insist on maintaining Puerto Rico’s “national” symbols to preserve the emotional link to its culture of origin. In addition to favoring the physical proximity of places of coexistence and entertainment, Puerto Rican expatriates obsessively value language, family traditions, popular art (music in particular) and gastronomy, elements that turn into daily connections to identity during this sort of period of exile.” The situation quoted herein is not exclusive to the Puerto Rican diaspora because this sentiment is also observed among islanders of different political affiliations, social classes, races and genders, as well as other ethnic groups.

In the essay The Democratic Tradition in Puerto Rico, Luis Gonzalez Vales proves the preference of the Puerto Rican people for using democratic processes as a channel to express their political affinity. Contributing to the conversation on elements of social cohesion, the author provides us with a brief history detailing the participation of the Island’s inhabitants in the political process starting 1809. He stresses the evolution of the term voter during the past two hundred years and the interest to give minorities a voice with the enactment of Law No. 83 of 1912. Gonzalez places an emphasis on the use of independent candidacy from 1928 on, and the continuous increase of voting participation turn-out rates during the Island’s general elections. He also highlights the organized way in which Puerto Ricans participated in the election of the Constituent Assembly members to create the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in 1952, and the conciliatory behavior of the members of the Assembly despite representing different political parties. Gonzalez Vales suggests that a constant in our lives as a people is “the distinct tendency of Puerto Ricans to prefer the path of legality as the medium to achieve significant change in the public sector with an almost universal rejection to the use of violence for said purpose.”

Magali Garcia Ramis touches the subject of cooking in her essay The sausage dancing to the rhythm of the tin can. In this essay she puts forward our preference for local products and their production through the development of a local gastronomy. She tells us how the Puerto Rican Cookbook was progressively structured. The author declares: “Since the prehistoric beginnings of our culinary work, we have imported food products.” She also mentions some excluded ingredients [“…Iguanas (Lizards), no…”] to avoid responding to the idiosyncrasies of the new groups of immigrants that were arriving and culturally adapting throughout Puerto Rico’s history. Using the example of the evolution of our cooking, Garcia Ramos provokes reflection on the formation process of the Puerto Rican culture. As an element of social cohesion, the author suggests the creolization of culinary dishes adapting recipes and ingredients to the agricultural and commercial reality of the island. What does eating in Puerto Rican mean for her? Well, to eat is “… the perfect marriage…white rice…with red beans…the iconic grain native of China and imported through Spain, mixed with the tasty red bean, whose origin is debated by Mexico and Peru…both imported, but very appropriate for us.”

In Angel G. Quintero’s essay Puerto Rican music as common ground for exchanges, negotiations and collaborative projects, he presents the preference of Puerto Ricans for musical expression as the cohesive agent of our diverse cultural heritage and different social class. He uses the integration of African rhythmic language as an example to illustrate of our musical adaptation process over other musical traditions that converge in Puerto Rico. By doing so, he places Afro-Puerto Rican music in a privileged position because he presents it as the cornerstone of Puerto Rican music. He also describes Puerto Rican culture as Caribbean, dynamic and creative, as well as unruly, on which Spanish settlers imposed a social division based on a racial hierarchy. He reasons that such social divisions did not have the result the dominant ethnic group expected. He also perceives in music the manifestation of a cultural force and the appreciation of diversity by including different cultural traditions in its own musical language.

Additionally, he considers inclusion as a characteristic of an island culture, although he recognizes the existence of struggles and negotiations during the integration process of the different musical languages. In Manuel Alonso’s El Gíbaro, one of Puerto Rico’s first literary works written in the 19th century, Quintero identifies a racial struggle between white supremacy and black inferiority. To evidence said struggle, he rescues two popular music genres found in Alonso’s work from collective oblivion: music for high society balls and garabato balls (garabato, which literally means scrawl, refers to a dance that included different types of dances). He establishes the exclusion of the mulatto bomba dances because, as stated by Alonso, they were not considered suitable then. Quintero tells us that current studies contradict Alonso’s perception, as it has been possible to identify the use of the bomba beat in both white popular dances. In spite of the so-called struggle between the Spanish and the African, the reader can deduce that neither the dances for the whites are exclusively Spanish, nor the the dances for the blacks exclusively African. Then, both were Puerto Rican dances. Quintero wraps up his essay by describing Puerto Rican music as characterized by an “inclusive cultural tradition that has achieved the incorporation of our practices of artistic music creation and its language into the sound production forms originated in other societies.”

In Marcelino Canino’s essay, Popular religion in Puerto Rico and the African heritage, he presents the Puerto Rican disposition in favor of expressing their religious sentiments by worship forms that are not exempt of some degree of syncretism. As an example, Canino offers a review of some African religious practices mixed with the official religion of the Spanish state: Catholicism. He reminds the reader that Africans were brought by force to the Americas and refused to accept the imposition of the official culture in rebellious ways, which include a religious syncretism that help masked their beliefs by combining them with Christian practices. He provides a considerable amount of examples of these practices.

Furthermore, he presents a case which shows that this exchange was not unilateral but multilateral. Africans adopted external forms of religion from other ethnic groups as well, to such an extent that nowadays they are considered practices of African origin. Such is the case of the baquiné wake or burial ceremony of a child or angel that, according to Canino and his research, is of European origin, not African. To sum it up, Canino guides the reader to conclude that, the different founding sectors and ethnic groups of the Puerto Rican culture, which incorporates its society, there is a tendency to adopt multiple religious practices. Therefore, he concludes his work stating that “there is no doubt black men were forced to assimilate to the Hispanic culture of the dominant classes. They adopted and adapted religious beliefs and practices from Catholicism. At the same time, after the North American military invasion in 1898, many black Puerto Ricans as well as other members of the white and mixed-race communities affiliated themselves to the evangelical creeds and churches, which established themselves in Puerto Rico as of that moment.”

The use of official symbols to celebrate victories, in this case sports victories, is highlighted Felix R. Huertas’ essay titled Sports and Identity formation in Puerto Rico. His work asserts sports are one of the unifying forces of the Puerto Rican people and has been seen as such since 1930. He shows the correlation between sports victories and the use of collective, official political symbols like the Puerto Rican flag and national anthem as identity components. Both became official symbols of Puerto Rico when the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was established in 1952. The original Puerto Rican flag was designed in 1897 by the Cuban Revolutionary Party’s Puerto Rico faction, presided by Julio J. Henna, as a patriotic symbol in a meeting held in Chimney Hall, NY. For Huertas, the importance of sports as an element of social cohesion stems from the belief that “sports become a kind of link to the community, where identity and common experiences emerge, or simply, develop.” In addition, he underlines that “calling Puerto Rico a nation, in political terms, has always created conflict…” although doing it exclusively for sports events is acceptable. Let us remind ourselves how Günther Grass declares the existence of a dual identity, one political and the other cultural, and the first does not co-exist with the second. One must say that, for Huertas, sports are closely linked to the cultural identity of the Puerto Rican people.

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

What is the common denominator among Puerto Ricans?

Altogether, these essays bring to light various elements of social cohesion from which different shared values are derived, like the valorization of the land, the emphasis on creolization and the preference for democratic processes.

The authors’ tone, independent from the topic they wrote about, reflects pride in ourselves, for the land in which we live. Affection and defense of the land are echoed in the actions of Puerto Rico’s inhabitants from the beginning of the Spanish colonization around 1530. During said decade, the mining operation in Puerto Rico ceased to exist. As a result, its first people had to choose between taking up mining again in regions with considerable precious metals deposits, like Peru, or remaining in this land and changing its primary commercial activity to a more lucrative one. A group of 330 Spaniards accepted the challenge and stayed on the Island, and laid the foundations for the future Puerto Rican people. As a result of their stay, they had to put up with the attacks of hurricanes and reconstructing their estates after various hurricanes passed, some of them lashing onto the Island in one year.

This predisposition to stay and preserve the land was encapsulated by Salvador Brau, Puerto Rico’s official historian in the 19th century, when he addressed the Overseas Minister of Spain in 1893 to request political autonomy for Puerto Rico. Brau reminds the Minister how the inhabitants of Puerto Rico endured French privateers attacks in 1528, 1538 and 1550, tolerated English privateers attacks in 1595 and 1797, and Dutch privateers in 1624, while other islands in the West Indies changed flags.

Furthermore, using as an example the 1797 English attack, Brau emphasizes the appreciation for the land by the inhabitants and their unity, irrespective of political and social ideologies, with the common purpose of driving out the privateers. He informs the Minister that the Puerto Rican countrymen sent the English away to Trinidad “without hesitation, whites and blacks alike, landowners and slaves, together…”. This enthusiasm for the land is depicted by the priest Diego de Torres Vargas when he wrote the first history of Puerto Rico in the 17th century. His work shows the progression of the creolization process on the Island for the first time because Torres Vargas wrote to pay tribute to the achievements Puerto Rico’s sons. The effort to praise the land continues. It continues to be alive in the sports arena as the Puerto Rican flag is raised during sports triumphs at international events.

Another shared value would be the creolization process. It is noteworthy to explain an extraordinary occurrence; the general recognition of a miracle on the Island, according to the norms of the Catholic religion at the time. According to the priest Torres Vargas, this remarkable event took place in the municipality of Hormigueros and happened to a man who lost his 8-year old daughter and “after 15 days they found the girl, well and happy, in the same clothes as day she disappeared; and when asked how she survived without food, she responded that a woman fed her during those days…it was understood to have been the compassion of Our Lady, the Virgin of Monserrat…”. To justify the girl’s emergence, after considering her missing, a miracle performed by the Virgin of Monserrat, adored by the residents of the Island, is used as the resource.

In addition, during the 1600’s, Damián López de Haro offers a creolization example using one of the first descriptions of Puerto Rican food and its agriculture, when asserting that “… there’s rice on the table of this land whereas many parts of the world don’t have any other type of food; we have all types of cakes and a fruit called plantain, abundant and in variety, and is an everyday staple… because the sweet plantain is used as bread and fruit, and the green plantains are cooked like sweet potatoes or carrots; farmers roast them like chestnuts and make lots of soups and stews out of them in amorphous casseroles; it’s healthy food…”.

As shown in the minutes of the clergy or town hall meetings of San Juan and San German in the 16th century, Puerto Rico’s political participation started to crystallize at the time of the Spanish occupation. Although both councils only granted a voice and a vote to the local oligarchy, one must recognize that they also allowed, due to the open nature of the council mechanism, other neighbors the opportunity of participating in the discussions. The Puerto Rican historian Aida Caro Costas states that the open council: “was held with the help of the most qualified neighbors to resolve issues of great importance and interest to the community.”

On many occasions, the minutes of both councils revealed attempts to engage in dialogue and negotiations with the authorities that gave orders in the name of emperors like Charles V. These exhibited vast legislation presented at their own initiative with the purpose of regulating only local issues. The existing tradition of allowing the participation of the local elite in the first Spanish democratic system of 1809, inspired by the Republican system of the recently independent Republic of the United States of America, turned out to be very organic. On the other hand, these councils also accepted with great joy the power of participating in the creation of the Spanish Constitution of 1812, and of being protected by it as a result of its application on the Island. And as a consequence, Puerto Rico became a province of Spain, acquiring equality among other provinces of the Iberian Peninsula.

This tendency to peacefully participate in political processes goes on to the 20th century. Luis Muñoz Marín, first locally elected governor of Puerto Rico, gave emphasis to this tendency by using a literary character called Nicanor Guerra, a real person for some, a fictional character for others. According to Luis Muñoz Marín, this character embodied the masses of Puerto Rico and should be taken into consideration as he proposed political changes because they feared those changes could generate “…violence, hostile abuse and damages to all the hope of progress and justice for the masses.”
The elements of social cohesion presented in this project illustrate a constant force of interests and purposes throughout the history of Puerto Rico. These elements are symbolized by values that, through negotiations and consensus among the founding ethnic groups, the people of Puerto Rico have been cultivating since 1508. Cultural identity rooted in the land and ethnic mix within it, with its customs and ways, is particularly identified. This tolerance for the “other” shows a way of stimulating the inclusion of all groups in a culture that, deep down, continuously fosters social cohesion by using the values cultivated throughout its history.


Author: Dra. Mercedes Casablanca
Published: September 28, 2010.

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