Throughout our history, commencing with Fray Iñigo Abbad y Lasierra – author of the first comprehensive book on the history of Puerto Rico, a wealth of 19th and 20th century authors have been shaping the profile of the Puerto Rican people. Even though the evaluation of that effort exceeds the limits of this work, it is important to mention some of the milestones in this national character building process.
At the end of the 18th century, Abbad is the first one to define the Puerto Rican man, or better yet, the criollo. Initially, he does it by comparing him to the Europeans or whites; or, as they call themselves, “the men of the other side”. The children of this land “are normal; one barely sees a cripple person on the island. His constitution is delicate and in every one of them there is a fine and soft organization, suitable of warm weather; but this same weather makes them lazy, deprives them of regular sharpness of actions, and gives them a color and an aspect of sick people.” In terms of their psychological characteristics, the Benedictine writes, “they are cautious and reserved and are always observing; but posses a vivid imagination to reason and imitate what they see; they love liberty, are kind and hospitable with foreigners; but are vain and inconsistent when it comes to their taste.”
Manuel Alonso, considered the father of Puerto Rican literature, presents a more positive image of the Puerto Rican man in his book El Gíbaro with the following sonnet:
Dark-skinned, clear forehead
Languid, penetrating, arrogant gaze,
Black beard, pale expression,
Skinny face, well-balanced nose.
Medium height, rhythmic walk,
A soul longing illusions,
Sharp, free and arrogant wit,
Eager thinker, hot-minded.
Human, friendly, fair, kind
Always erratic in love,
Always passionate for glory and pleasure,
Unwavering in the love for his country.
This is, without a doubt, an accurate model
To copy a good Puerto Rican man.
The predominant quality in the opinions and testimonies of our thinkers regarding the characteristics of the Puerto Rican man is not praise but self-criticism, irony and will to declare the existence of a national character.
Salvador Brau’s “Disquisiciones sociológicas” (Sociological Discrepancies) presents us with a definition that integrates characteristics of the three ethnic groups composing the Puerto Rican people. In his essay “Las clases jornaleras de Puerto Rico” (Puerto Rico’s working class), he creates this multi-ethnic mosaic and says:
“… from the Taino Indians we inherited laziness, taciturnity, lack of interest and hospitality; Africans brought us endurance, vigorous sensuality, superstition and fatalism; the Spanish instilled in us their chivalry, arrogance, festive ways, austere devotion, perseverance, and love for independence and country”.
Later, Rosendo Matienzo Cintrón examines in a series of books the effect of the impact of American culture in Puerto Rico. With an ironic sense of humor, he tells us that when Americans arrived on the island, a kind of phobia against everything Spanish or Puerto Rican exploded. “It was not a bad gesture, because it praised new life, but many good-natured Puerto Ricans and Americans took it to an extreme… Some wanted to suddenly pull out their tongue, get rid of their traditions, laws, even their names”.
In the Puerto Rican household, Manolitos, Panchitos and Joseitos went to bed, and they woke up the next morning as Franks, Jimmys, Williams and Joes.
Antonio S. Pedreira, the most influential intellectual of the Generation of 1930, had facilitated a public survey published on the magazine Indice (Index Magazine) to define the Puerto Rican identity. It was an attempt to determine the elements of our personality as a people. Years later, Pedreira publishes his essay Insularismo (Insularism), perhaps the most influential work of his generation and future ones, which defines us as follows:
“In terms of race, we are a heterogeneous people, a mix of white, black and mulatto ancestries… our collective personality is responsible for a handful of men that represents us in almost all the insular compartments of our culture”.
Independently of how we are defined, there are certain constants in our life as a community that deserve to be stressed since they are important elements of our society. The first and perhaps most important characteristic has been the enduring tendency of Puerto Ricans to prefer the law as the mean to achieve important changes in government structure, with an almost complete rejection to the use of violence for said purpose. Only twice in Puerto Rico’s history do we see a group of Puerto Rican nationalists resorting to violence to enforce their ideal of establishing an independent state: the “Grito de Lares” (The Cry of Lares) in 1898 and the Revolt of 1950. In both cases, the revolutionary movements were short-lived due to the lack of substantial backing from our people.
The Revolt of 1950 took place within the context of the general electoral registration; prior to submitting for approval a federal legislation that would allow the people of Puerto Rico, for the first and last time in our history to date, to call a Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution for the Puerto Rican Government. As stated by María Teresa Babín in her book “Panorama de la cultura puertorriqueña” (Puerto Rican culture: A Panoramic View), “… to make democracy a living reality has been, historically, the one clear and constant ideal of the Puerto Rican people”.
Electoral processes under Spanish rule
Our participation in the electoral process is one of the most obvious indicators of our fervent belief in democracy. Fernando Bayrón Toro, an analyst of Puerto Rico’s electoral events beginning in 1809 until today, provides us with valuable information that allows us to calibrate citizen participation in electoral process.
During the Spanish regime, 24 elections took place under different rules. In many cases, these rules were temporary laws or transitory rulings, generally enacted during periods of revolutionary or counter-revolutionary changes by a cabinet or interim government. This way, for example, the first elections of 1809-1810 were celebrated according to the orders of the Central Governing Board of the Regime (1809) or the Council of Regency (1810). In both cases, the election, won by Ramón Power y Giralt, was held using religious and political pull and through a provisional board presided by the Governor, in which the elected representatives from San Juan, San Germán, Aguada, Arecibo y Coamo– the electoral districts back then, participated.
When the Constitution of 1812 was approved, Chapters I to V of Title III stipulated the rules governing elections, including the requirements to become an elector. Under the protection of said law, the celebration of the 1813, 1814, 1820, 1821, 1823 and 1835 elections took place.
From 1835 up until 1869, the Governors and General Captains exercised their command with all-embracing faculties; therefore, no elections were held. Not until the Glorious Revolution of 1868 marked the time when Puerto Ricans recovered their participation in elections, abiding by the ordinary electoral laws approved by the Spanish courts and subject to revision and amendment. The right to vote was strictly limited.
The most important elections held during Spanish rule were, without a doubt, the 1898 elections. Said elections were celebrated on March 27 and were the first and only ones held under the Autonomic Charter of 1897. The Provisional Ruling for the ratification of Puerto Rico’s Electoral Law of June 26, 1890 was then in force, and 16 deputies to the Spanish Court, 73 mayors and 35 representatives to the Insular Parliament were elected. Out of 165,068 registered voters, 121,573 voted, achieving a voter turnout rate of 73.65%. Liberals and conservatives, both autonomist parties, attained a combined total of 98,695 votes, in comparison to 3,729 by opportunists and supporters. The total number of voters revealed a substantial increase, when compared to the former elections where, under extremely restrictive laws, less than 5,000 voted. Except for the elections held under the canons of the Autonomic Charter (“Carta Autonómica”), the number of voters varied between a minimum of 2,794 in the 1884 elections and a maximum of 46,042 in the 1873 elections, the latter held under the First Spanish Republic. During the course of the 19th century’s electoral process, Puerto Ricans elected a total of 214 deputies to the Spanish Court; 5 deputy substitutes; 4 legal counsels to the Spanish Court; 24 partial election deputies to replace so many others that left their posts; and 41 senators.
Elections under U.S. government
From 1898 up until 2004, 31 elections have been held, the 2004 elections being the most recent, first of the 21st century, and the most controversial. During this period, organic (Foraker Law of 1900 and Jones Act of 1917) or constitutional (Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico) acts dictated the electoral process.
In addition, the 20th century introduces other legal texts that regulate the electoral processes. In 1912, Public Law 83 of March 14 was enacted to establish minority representation in the General Assembly. The minority representation principle, as we will see later on, was raised to constitutional status when the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico was approved in 1952. This would make Puerto Rico the only country to safeguard representation by addition of minority parties when the majority party has secured 2/3 of the votes in both the House and Senate.
In 1928, legislation was approved to facilitate the filing of independent candidates aspiring for Congress. One year later, all literate men and women had the right to vote. Women were given the right to vote for the first time in 1932. In said elections, María Luisa Arcelay was elected to the House of Representatives for the 16th district of the municipality of Mayaguez, becoming the first woman in Congress. Four years later, María M. de Pérez Almiroty was the first woman to be elected Senator.
By 1936 universal suffrage was granted, and in 1947 the U.S. Congress authorized the Crawford-Butler Law, which allowed Puerto Ricans to elect its own Governor. By virtue of said law, Luis Muñoz Marín was elected Governor in the 1948 General Elections.
An amendment to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico approved in 1970, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. From 1972 on, young voters 18 years of age and up began to exercise their right to vote.
As previously seen, the right to participate in political processes broadened more and more, and the democratic tradition in Puerto Rico was strengthened to the point that, except for the 1900 elections (when voter turnout rate was 47.5 percent), the voter turnout rate during general elections has fluctuated between 64 percent and 92.84 percent. In 14 of those elections, the percentage of said rate had oscillated between 71.5 percent and 79.7 percent, while in 11 of them the voter turnout rate has exceeded the 80 percent mark. Thus, Puerto Rico is one of the places with a voluntary voting system with the highest voter turnout rate, far exceeding that of the U.S.
But not everything has been positive in the effort to expand democratic participation. During the 1936 registration process, as well as in 2004, fraud was so pervasive that the American Governor, General Blanton Winship, reported a suspicious discrepancy between the number of voters and working residents in various municipalities of the island.
The scandal generated by said report resulted in immediate action by the U.S. Congress, which approved a bill to establish a closed electoral college to correct the situation. The bill, presented by Senator Millar Tydings, was enacted by the Senate and forced our legislature to include the closed Electoral College section as part of the Electoral Law of Puerto Rico. The lasting effect of the bill was to remove fake names from electoral lists. This is why the voter turnout rate in the general elections of 1940 was lower than in 1936, registering a reduction of around 49,600 voters.
While evaluating the political processes of the 20th century, we can highlight two relatively long periods in which one political party controlled the elections and ruled the island virtually without opposition. The first period was from 1904 to 1920, controlled by the Union Party which was established and led by Luis Muñoz Rivera until his death in 1916. Then came his political heir Antonio R. Barceló, first president of the Senate, established in 1917 by virtue of the Jones Act of 1917. The second period started in 1940, with the triumph of the then recently established Popular Democratic Party led by Luis Muñoz Marín, who stayed in power until 1968. An important aspect of Muñoz’s discourse was the successful eradication of the general tradition of selling political votes. Gradually, the Puerto Rican voter became aware of the value of a vote, understanding that through the conscious exercise of suffrage a citizen could determine who would get elected.
Under the terms of Public Law 600 of June 3, 1950, the Puerto Rican people were able to set forth the process of drafting the constitution of the Commonwealth to regulate the internal organization of the island’s government. Elections were held on August 27, 1951, to designate members for the Constituent Assembly, and the Popular Democratic Party elected 70 delegates, the maximum allowed; the New Progressive Party chose 15; and the Socialist Party elected 7, for a grand total of 92 members. The Independence Party did not participate in the process for obvious reasons.
The inaugural session of the first Constituent Assembly was celebrated on September 17, 1951, and on February 21, 1952 Governor Muñoz Marín officially announced the approval, by the Constituent Convention, of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Consensus prevailed in this social and democratic process, as 88 out of 92 delegates voted in favor of the Constitution.
As for the democratic rights of Puerto Ricans bestowed by the Constitution, it’s worth identifying, first, the Declaration of Rights; second, the elevation of minority representation to constitutional status, and the increase to 11 seats “at-large” in each legislative body; and last but not least, the creation of a Constitutional Board for electoral redistribution to take place every 10 years. This last resolution has ensured the continuous equality in the value of the citizen’s vote. As of today, 5 Electoral Redistribution Boards have been held and unanimous consensus has been reached in 4 of them. It’s noteworthy that the courts have never challenged the decisions taken by the Board.
Even though the status issue seemed to be solved as a result of the ratification of the Constitution, it is no less certain that Muñoz Marín, right after the Constitution’s approval, initiated efforts to expand autonomy statutes granted to Puerto Rico to settle its own conflicts. To this day, however, all efforts to change the political relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States have fallen short. The Status Commissions of Puerto Rico and all lobbying efforts made in the U.S. Congress to modify the status quo, have systematically failed due to the reluctance of the American government to deal with the issue.
Status discussions, which Muñoz had removed from electoral debate with his “status is not a political issue” discourse, progressively ebbed. But today, with the prevailing political polarization and division among Puerto Ricans regarding such a fundamental issue is more apparent with each day that passes.
Such political schism, a product of the continuous alteration in power between the two main political parties, has obstructed the recognition of the good in past and present administrations, resulting in the lack of long-term vision and continuity in government projects, and the understanding that each time the political party in power changes, to a great extent, we must start from scratch.
However, within the partisan and ideological battle to obtain the governing power, the manifestation of an “intelligent vote” among voters is increasingly transpiring. The voter has moved away from bloc voting and almost 200,000 voters cross political lines when casting their ballots. An evident weakening of the traditional party structure has also added to this tendency.
A sick world?
Manuel Zeno Gandía, one of our most prominent novelists (whose work covered the future of Puerto Rico between the end of 19th century and first decades of the 20th) is the author of four of the most important novels in Puerto Rican literature, collectively titled Crónicas de un mundo enfermo (Chronicles of a Sick World). The first two, La Charca (The Pond) and Garduña, address rural life on the island. On the other hand, El Negocio (The Business) and Redentores (Redeemers) use the urban landscape as backdrop. La Charca (The Pond), the main and best-known classic of these four novels, tells us about the human and social conflicts of the world Gandía lived. According to Josefina Rivera de Alvarez, Zeno Gandía analyses “with honesty and courage the material, moral and political issues of the island”.
In fact, the title Crónicas de un mundo enfermo (Chronicles of a Sick World) could well be applied to the circumstances of contemporary Puerto Rico. Waiting for a novelist who narrates the embodiments of our present-day society with Zeno Gandia’s realism, the media that keeps us informed on a daily basis about the illnesses that afflict our lives as a people, those which break our social structure. Let’s take a quick look at some of these illnesses.
Given the challenges faced since 2005 calls into question the likelihood of a shared government. Even though the Island had a shared government during 1969-1972, with the New Progressive Party dominating the Executive and House of Representatives branches, the political polarization then didn’t compare to the division now. At the time, both Governor Ferré and President of the Senate Rafael Hernandez Colon, achieved bipartisanship in dealing with key issues, allowing for the proper function of the government, and therefore, of the island.
A second example of a shared government came about as a result of the 1980’s elections, when Governor Romero Barceló had to cope with a House and a Senate dominated by the opposing party. Once again, and although the political climate was more difficult (worsened by the Cerro Maravilla investigations) there was no crisis as for government functionality.
But during the last three years, deadlocks between the Executive Power, controlled by the Popular Democratic Party, and the Legislature, dominated by the New Progressive Party, have caused crisis after crisis, including the closing of the government, which, according to many Puerto Ricans, has made the island ungovernable and inefficient.
Violence: A social phenomenon
One of the most distressing situations in present-day Puerto Rico is the increase of violence in its various manifestations: gender-based violence, highway violence, school violence, the number of violent crimes, and corruption at every level. Fernando Picó approached the topic of violence in his keynote speech as Humanist of the Year, uprooting the historic origins of a phenomenon that dates back to the dawn of our society. Progressively, stated Picó, the shaping of “a society accustomed to illegality, may it be in contraband, the acceptance of illegal immigrants, the authoritarian practices by local officials or the usual lack of knowledge of a state’s rights” took place.
One of the most visible manifestations of this tendency towards illegality is the rampant corruption found in both the public and private sectors. This political polarization consequently, has brought on a battle to preserve power at any cost, effort which eroded the integrity in public service. Even attempts to control these deviant turns by applying the Governmental Ethics Law, never before have there been so many appointed public officials nor elected legislators accused, sentenced and incarcerated for so many different types of corruption acts.
Drugs: Social Evils
Puerto Rico’s prevailing economic prosperity of the last decade has caused an alarming increase in the sale and consumption of drugs and all kinds of controlled substances. Consequently, the battle to control drug spots has unleashed a wave of violence that manifests every day in the form of homicides.
Drug sale and use has, therefore, adversely affected the health of individuals. HIV/AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, is a tangible manifestation of this vile phenomenon. Unbridled sexuality and the rise in sexually transmitted diseases also stem from drug use. But these are not the only factors; the weakening of the traditional family institution, as we’ll discussed further on, also facilitates sexual promiscuity at a young age.
Members of the upper class have hidden themselves from violence and drugs behind the social segregation card. But the explosion of gated residential communities has been, and continues to be, a dividing factor in our society. At any rate, it is obvious that the success of modern residential development projects depends, more and more, on having controlled access as one of the main amenities to attract new residents.
Possible solutions to the problem are initiatives like the Assistance Program for Isolated Communities. Other measures taken to tackle this dilemma include the celebration of discussion forums in different parts of the island to identify problems and propose solutions. The audience of these forums or town meetings is fairly representative of society in general, and the recommendations generated are presented to political parties as alternatives to be incorporated into their agendas in the upcoming 2008 elections. We’ll have to wait and see how effective the adoption of these recommendations is as a democratizing element of our society, and to what extent they will be represented in special interests groups.
Education as the balance of society
Puerto Rican society, particularly beginning in the mid-1900’s, has considered education as an element for social mobility. Hence, a third of public funds are allocated for said purpose.
By the end of World War II, the growth of public and private higher education catapulted Puerto Rico to the first five countries in the world whose students attend college in proportion to its total population. This has allowed the creation of a high-quality professional class to look after the needs of our society, and has opened doors to many Puerto Ricans that hold leadership positions in academia, business, medicine, and engineering, among others. One of our most promising assets is precisely, the well-trained human capital that allows Puerto Rico to compete in a world where globalization is transforming the way we interconnect and do business.
Nevertheless, the exodus of local talent, capped by the quest of a better quality of life, remains a topic of indisputable concern.
Family and Society
Usually, the family is considered the true foundation of a society. And following this line of thought, the nuclear family in Puerto Rico as well as the extended one, have acted as traditional support systems of our social grounds. However, that traditional family now faces an evident transformation, which in most cases – not all – is tainted with calamity. We are talking about the progressive deterioration of the family institution, among other factors, due to high divorce rates, a high number of single-parent households (indifferent to their duties as parents), and the rise in domestic violence cases. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, we must accept what this harsh reality implies: that many children have to grow in hostile, divided environments; that there are plenty of brothers and/or sisters with different mothers or fathers; that the lack of parental support leads kids to drop-out from school (shattering the essential process of education); and that many youngsters engage in antisocial behavior to escape their unstable family situation, which in extreme cases end up in acts of crime, and feed the already overpopulated penal establishments.
Also, it is noteworthy that discrimination with regard to political affiliation, economic status, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, race or religion, continues to represent daily segregating elements that deserve high priority attention. This is the only way to achieve a suitable social environment, which fosters the promotion of a healthy coexistence.
However, we stress the fact that Puerto Rico, throughout its history, has evidenced its commitment to the ideals of democracy. For this reason, the voice of our society is increasingly reverberating and manages to get political organizations and the public sector to listen to the concerns of the people, evaluate their proposals and solutions, and truly advocate for the implementation of feasible solutions. We know that tomorrow is an uncertain future, but moving forward with said unrelenting democratic spirit, we should be able to be wisely optimistic when facing our future.
Author: Luis E. González Vales
Published: September 28, 2010.
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