Tuesday, 7 December 2010

The Puerto Rican Predicament

Philly’s Puerto Ricans (125,000 of them live just North of Center City) don’t have a hell of a lot to shout about. Daily News reporter Juan Gonzales noted in September that Hispanics in general—and PRs in particular—are falling more and more behind in the two-tiering of America that has accelerated during the Reagan Recovery.
He reported that 42 percent of PR families in this country are below poverty level, “and 48 percent of PR families (probably many of the same ones) are headed by a single parent . . . Most troubling is that the trend is getting worse, not better . . . and a wide gap is developing between PRs and other Hispanics . . . For instance, in 1959, PR median family income was 73 percent of all U.S. families. In 1984, it was 46 percent, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures . . . Both poverty level and the percentage of single parent families is much lower among other Hispanics.”
Gonzales speculated about these intra-Hispanic disparities and wondered if U.S. colonialism is one factor. My understanding of analogous problems in Liberia and the Philippines makes me think yes. But the crisis cries out for action, not philosophizing.
At the very least, the Hispanic community can be grateful to have so eloquent a rep as Gonzales on the city’s People Paper. And Puerto Ricans can walk proudly as well through the main hall of the Free Library on Logan Square and the very inspiring and informative exhibition there called “A Salute to the Puerto Rican Community.”
I’ve only been to Puerto Rico once—for a Third World Writers’ Conference in San Juan in 1982—but my eyes still resonate from the natural beauty of the place, and my heart warms as well remembering the friendly openness of the people putting on the conference.
But I saw there what I had already seen in 1977 in Cuba: an infrastructure geared to tourists with big bucks and a hunger for instant pleasure. (In Cuba, the old hotels were rotting away, but the floor show at the Copacabana differed from flesh flashing at our own watering holes only in being somewhat more modest and stuffily politicized in story line.) And the despicable odor of exploitation hung as heavily on the streets of San Juan as it did in Havana.
But the Free Library, of course, is right in accentuating the positive. I knew from TV ads this summer that Rita Moreno was a PR, but I had missed the fact that Jose Ferrer was as well. And there is a fascinating historical hypothesis on why so many PRs have excelled in baseball—recent archeology has unearthed courts for the Taino Indian soccer-like game, Batu, in which only head, hip, shoulder or knee could keep the ball going toward the enemies’ goal.
And I mean enemy. I chatted up Domingo Negron, the graphic artist at Gran Enterprises, whose Taino petroglyph-inspired banners grace the upper perimeter of the Free Library exhibition. He told me that in pre-Columbian times the losers could be enslaved or sacrificed. Talk about sore losers!
Another graphic highlight of the show is the cluster of masks by Noe Lugo, the man who also designed the mural now under construction at the Taller Puertorriqueno at Fifth and Lehigh, a work of the Anti-Graffiti Network supervised by Jane Gordon. (The network has gotten such a wave of bad press, you owe it to yourself to drive by and see TAGN at its best.)
That irreducible idealist, Thomas Eakins, would be delighted to learn that his house in Spring Garden had become a cultural center. But there is political history as well as art to learn. It surprised me that there are an estimated two million PRs in the continental U.S., when the total island population is only 3.2 million.
Visiting the universities in Puerto Rico prepared me to believe that the illiteracy rate is only eight percent and that an impressive 140,000 are attending higher education—seeking ways out of the poverty that has enfeebled their communities since the Depression. Twenty-two percent remain unemployed; 44 percent of youth 16 to 24 are out of work. And although the inhabitants of the island commonwealth were awarded U.S. citizenship as early as 1917, it wasn’t until 1948 that they were allowed to elect their own governor, Luis Munoz Marin.
Your appetite whetted at the Free Library, pay a visit to the Taller at Fifth and Lehigh, and talk to cultural coordinator Luis Hernandez, a doctoral candidate in communications at Temple, who’s also a featured columnist (“En la brega cultural”—on the cultural struggle) for Community Focus, the 40,000 circulation weekly “serving the Hispanic community of the Metropolitan area.”
“We just got distribution in Camden,” the quietly enthusiastic organizer boasted. “Communication is a problem for us. We want the entire community, not just Puerto Ricans, to feel welcome here. We’re proud of our heritage and are eager to share it. But except for the alternative weeklies like the City Paper or Welcomat, we can’t get any notice at all.
“And when Channel 6 came out here to tape coverage of our Frank Espada photography exhibition, they concentrated on Councilman Angel Ortiz—and didn’t even mention where these photos could be seen! Very frustrating.”
Hernandez is a very knowledgeable guide to the ambiguities of communications—he is finishing his own doctoral dissertation at the moment on the genesis of consumer culture in his native island (he comes from the small spa town of Aguas Buenas) from 1898-1954. “From when the Americans first came to when television arrived,” he adds wryly.
This year’s major attraction at the Taller (“workshop”) was a collection of 50 posters funded by the Puerto Rican Council on the Humanities. The themes and images were a short course in the history of Puerto Rican culture: the centennial of Juan Ramon Jimenez, a Nobel literary laureate in 1957, a Spanish writer who spent the end of his life in PR; the importance of coffee to the economy (before America took over from Spain and made the economy a sugar monoculture, coffee in the highlands was equal to sugar in value); idiom and identity; humanism and folklore; the influence of the Caribbean in PR; voluntary legal services; the African heritage; the access of the handicapped to culture; the historic role of Puerto Rican women; the role of the plastic arts as a factor in humanization and socialization; and, one that stuck out like a sore thumb because of its Anglo angle, “A Conference on the Works of Irene and Jack Delano.”
“Who were the Delanos?” I asked Hernandez. In a reprint by UPR art historian Teresa Tio which he gave me, I learned that the poster movement in PR started in 1946 in a small Cinema and Graphic Workshop under the stewardship of mainland American artist Irene Delano. “Silkscreen was the chosen method; it was the cheapest, not requiring mechanical equipment and, by virtue of its superior plastic properties it offered broader possibilities than did printers’ ink.”
A few years later, the poster movement (which combines artistic skill and social commitment) boomed when the workshop was transformed into an autonomous government agency, the Community Education Division.
And though the posters are gone from the Taller, you can see the latest exhibit there, an exiting collection of fine arts prints done by 21 artists from nine Latin American countries.
A Salute to the Puerto Rican Community: At the Central Library, 19th and Vine Streets, through November 30. 686-5425.
Latin American Artist Prints: At Taller Puertorriqueno, 272 N. Fifth Street, through December 12. Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 426-3311
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, November 26, 1986

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