Memories of a Lost Culture, Part I

National Identity, Artistic Praxis, and Neo-Colonial Transformation in the Art of Puerto Rico’s Division of Community Education (1952-68)

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Extending the Limits of National Identity

“Holy Mary, deliver us from all evil,” pleads the chorus of a traditional plena, one of Puerto Rico’s many native musical forms, “protect us, señora, from this terrible animal.” Sustained by the driving polyrhythm that defines this popular genre, the plenero recounts in verse the story of a horrible demon—part-ox, part-bull, and part-horse—menacing the western coastal town of Aguadilla. The Virgin Mary ultimately descends from the heavens, accompanied by a celestial chorus, and brings an end to the beast’s rampage, leaving the town in peace. The simple song, consisting of a chorus and five short verses, is nevertheless replete with vivid imagery, rooted in popular poetic structures drawn from the island’s singular mix of Spanish, Indigenous, and African cultural influences. The plena, like the bomba of Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast, was a musical form forged in the island’s poor coastal barrios and urban slums, rooted in an African rhythmic heritage that gave expression to the daily experience of a subaltern population long ignored by the urban elite who controlled the production of an official national discourse. Indeed, the earliest manifestations of Puerto Rican Creole identity sought more than anything to fashion an imagined cultural link with the light-skinned rural farming population, known as jíbaros, often characterized as possessing the soul of Puerto Rican national identity. The ‘Afro-Puerto Rican’ population brought as slaves to work coastal cane fields remained elided, rendered nonexistent by their exclusion from early discourses on Puerto Rican identity.

059-id-8e00c9dee8f8afe2d489dccf2aedc8aaIt is thus revealing that two of Puerto Rico’s most important graphic artists of the twentieth century, Rafael Tufiño and Lorenzo Homar, dedicated arguably their most significant works to the visual expression of plena. Tufiño’s 1967 serigraph, La Plena, commissioned by the Division of Community Education (DivEdCo), features as its most prominent image the figure of a black plenero clutching his characteristic tambor (small drum); the space around him rhythmically punctuated by visual distillations of common plena narratives, among which is found the demonic beast of Santa Maria. While the visual plane is occupied by images of relatively straightforward iconographic relation to Puerto Rican popular culture, the significance of this work—its form, content, and medium—is much more far-reaching than may be initially apprehended. Given Puerto Rico’s limited history in the visual arts, La Plena can be viewed as an attempt to translate the colors and rhythms of Puerto Rico’s rich musical history into a visual medium—a gesture rooted in a project of national identity formation that sought the recuperation of subaltern voices and expressive forms.

Tufiño, like his artistic collaborators in the DivEdCo, found himself working at a moment of profound social change in Puerto Rico. Artists and writers of previous generations on the island were forced to negotiate what José Luis González’ described as the first “three floors” of Puerto Rican society: the Afro-mestizo popular culture—which I would further divide into the Afro-Hispanic culture of the coastal lowlands and the mestizo culture of the central mountains,—the culture of the European elites brought with waves of migration from Catalunya, Corsica, and Germany in the nineteenth century, and the Anglo-American culture that accompanied the invasion by North American colonial forces in 1898.1 By mid-century, popular discontent with colonial policy and increasingly miserable living conditions amongst the non-elite resulted in progressively more radical demands for change. Ultimately, the populist Partido Popular Democrático of Luis Muñoz Marín —the son of perhaps the most prominent autonomist and theorist of Puerto Rican social debility, Luis Muñoz Rivera, — triumphed over socialist and nationalist contingents within Puerto Rican political culture, and set the course for the future transformation of the insular society—as well as that of the metropolis—by formulating the U.S.Commonwealth status now held by the island.

As the cultural vanguard for the construction of González’ “fourth floor”, Tufiño and his contemporaries, often working directly under the PPD administration, were charged with the task of articulating a new, popular national identity, while in the process radically reconceiving artistic practices, the relationship between art and popular culture, and the role of the artist in society. Nevertheless, though the burgeoning of creative activity at this time can be seen as an attempt to affirm cultural integrity in the face of a looming modernity; by reinforcing an uncritical, static image of national culture, the DivEdCo artists served to establish a cultural praxis that ultimately neutralized radical or subversive tendencies within the popular culture and allowed for the relatively unproblematic transition to an urban, industrial ‘neo-colony’ 2 that was the thrust of Muñoz Marín’s socio-economic agenda. While the post-1898 U.S. colonial order carried out the systematic corporatization of the Puerto Rican sugar industry, all but eliminating the production of coffee in the process, old colonial elites experienced a crisis of hegemony which led to a romanticization of the island’s Spanish colonial past with a concomitant conceptualization of national identity that “infused the image of the jíbaro with their own class interests in order both to admit popular-class actors into their vision of nation and to restrict that admission on terms favorable to their class”.3 Guerra’s study of jibarismo in terms of the hegemonic relationship between popular and elite culture will later on provide a useful framework through which to consider the production of Puerto Rican visual artists during the transition to Commonwealth status.

012-id-7248d2844884aa601e5b5e109e854086The rise of the PPD in the 1940s under the leadership of Muñoz Marín was characterized by a two-pronged development strategy intended to foment economic modernization while simultaneously carrying out a project of mass-education and reinforcing the essential characteristics of Puerto Rican identity.4 Indeed, the signing of the Commonwealth Agreement in 1952 brought about an unprecedented transformation of the island’s social structure that effectively urbanized the once primarily agrarian society, developing in turn a previously non-existent middle class and engendering a profound dependence upon North American capital and US government aid in the form of welfare. All of this was achieved by way of Operation Bootstrap, which took on the task of provoking economic and political transformation on the island by opening the door for North American industry, and Operation Serenidad, which was charged with the task of overseeing a national cultural transformation.

It is of great interest that, while the ultimately imperialist ends of this project may seem counter-intuitive, the creation of the Commonwealth was an essentially populist project—an ideological orientation demonstrated most glaringly in the cultural production overseen by the Division of Community Education. Created with great enthusiasm by Muñoz Marin in the years immediately preceding the Commonwealth Agreement, the DivEdCo was the ideological mouthpiece of the PPD, employing filmmakers and graphic artists from across the island and the metropolis to “create a Puerto Rican who could face the task of the coming industrialization”. To this end, DivEdCo artists produced serigraphs, films, pamphlets and a variety of other media with the express intent of impressing upon the rural population values of collectivity, community action and literacy.

Read Part Two here.

References:

1. Gonzales, Jose Luis. El Pais de Cuatro Pisos. San Juan: Ediciones Huracan, 1989.
2. While Puerto Rico’s political status is unique, as it still contains many elements of classical colonialism, the new economic paradigm established by the Puerto Rican Constitution of 1952 and Operation Bootstrap, involving the heavy investment of American capital, neatly fits the definition of neo-colonialism put forth by Kwame Nkruma in 1965. “Neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means. The neo-colonial State may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere. Control over government policy in the neo-colonial State may be secured by payments towards the cost of running the State, by the provision of civil servants in positions where they can dictate policy, and by monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power.” <http://www.marxists.org/subject/africa/nkrumah/neo-colonialism/introduction.htm> Continued from above: For a terse summation of Puerto Rico’s status as traditional colony see the chapter entitled “El Rey Azucar” in Eduardo Galeano’s Las venas abiertas de America Latina.
3. Guerra, p. 267
4. While, as I have asserted, the limits of this identity were extended to include previously neglected spheres of Puerto Rican culture, Muñoz Marin still drew upon symbolism heavily rooted in the Jibarista ideology discussed above.

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Andrew Stehney Vargas

is a writer, director, producer, actor and proud Nuyorican. A graduate of the International Film and Television School in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, his award-winning short films have been featured at film festivals across the U.S., Latin America and Europe. In his free time, he works in the promotion and distribution of Latin American cinema as Assistant Director of Cinema Tropical. 

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