When Mr. Kazin’s piece on Puerto Rico [February] was reprinted in the local English-language daily, violent letters filled the columns; mine was among the most indignant because I felt Kazin had behaved shabbily during his stay, giving small value and leaving much ill-will, and because I thought his article a blend of conceit and truculent provincialism, a proportion I had observed in the man before seeing it demonstrated in the article. Some weeks have passed. My feelings are less strong; my reactions are, I hope, more relevant.
I came to Puerto Rico nearly two years ago and fell in love with the island on a very simple basis: it seemed to be a beautiful, kind, and generous place in which to live and work. Yet, as sunlit day followed sunlit day, I too grew disaffected; in six months I was at much the same point as Mr. Kazin was within a few hours of his arrival. Indeed, when he came, he had the dubious benefit of some of my complaints. When we talked about local culture, I told him the story of the poor fish in Community Education who wanted to start up passion plays to give the jibaros in the mountains a sense of community culture; I bitched about Puerto Rican touchiness and manners; counted off on my fingers the small number of first-class minds; dwelled unhappily on the absence of self-irony among Puerto Rican intellectuals; expressed my horror at the noise (though not the dirt), the unpunctuality, and even the docility of the “natives.” But after a while, I saw through my first impressions; and I think Kazin should have.
Rather than answer him point by point, I would like to point out certain values in this society that I admire, and fears that I have for it that appal me: values and problems that Mr. Kazin did not see and that extend beyond this island, or would not be worth mentioning.
Highest among these values I place these three: that this is a human society, a personal society, and a free society. It is a human society because human values predominate over other values; a personal society because everyone knows everyone; and a free society because it is my opinion that a society that judges a man by what he is, by the movement of his hands and his mind and his heart and seeks him out to make sure that what he was quoted as saying is true according to his human measure, is sure to be a free society.
The family underlies all this, which is a firm unit still, in which grandmothers are not put out to pasture in nursing homes and awkward, drinking uncles can be sure of a meal and a squalling child can soak the costliest fabrics and not a tear be shed. What is proper to life is proper to the society; lacking is guilt. What belongs to life is close and noisy, weddings, births, and women’s lunches; so is what belongs to death, and the show need not go on, for a while. He who is born, or who marries, or who dies, is someone you know.
Knowing everyone, or raising human values over intellectual values, does not mean that life becomes small-town cozy. Just knowing someone is meaningless; respect is earned. But it is earned through personal awareness: a man’s position or profession is not himself.
Nor is a society liberal because it is human. But prejudice is propaganda and propaganda falters before direct contact. Humanity encompasses many forms of being and knowing. Puerto Rico is not much alarmed by any of them. It has a Hispanic liking for the loco; its titles of respect are poéta or filósofo. The time to worry is when the middle classes start bringing their children to the barbershop to be shorn close and hideous like all the other little middle class boys. That time is now.
Then I respect, too, the enormous concern Puerto Ricans have, for themselves and their society, and the way all share in that concern. After all, if there were only human values in this society, one could accuse it of laissez-faire and docility: life is life and to be accepted. But when you see a family span, in one generation, illiteracy and a household of university graduates, some leavening must be there, and not too much gentleness.
As for la culture indigene, it is a complex structure; its inspiration is different from Haiti’s or Russia’s, but then why should it be the same? It is often expressive of its own society, torn between its dual status as Spanish legatee and American satrapy; its culture doesn’t really come out in art, just as its history (of the lack of which Mr. Kazin complains) does not come out in a sense of history. The society is too pressed by the present and all thought propels it into the future. History and culture are both personal here; the one is remembered, the other lived. Most Americans who come here take up too much space with their own history and their own culture; around them, or around Mr. Kazin, there is not much room left.
Puerto Rico is not so docile as to swallow all things American. It is curiously selective, acquisitive of the surface of American life and deprecatory of the deeper values. I think this selectivity is made by the vision of what stands behind what the United States offers, which any Puerto Rican can see when he visits the hospitable city of New York: a Puerto Rican can still choose not to be one of the varicosed Bermuda’d monsters that wander about in the sun like so many ships looking for a bottle. Fair warning is given. Still, in spite of the impression Mr. Kazin gives, much does get done that docility does not impede, but in a different way. Puerto Rico does not have the organizational foothold that activity does in the United States, and that is its saving grace, for because of this, things do not get done only by organzational momentum, by managerial impetus.
These are good things, but will they last? I find these values sorely pressed by some of the very factors Mr. Kazin felt the lack of. Perhaps once economic progress is achieved, and has become all that there is, there will not be much left in the way of men, acting as men, to enjoy it. And as this progress produces a middle class explosion, it is quite possible that middle class values will come to dominate the revolution, the false values of money, selfishness, and prejudice. Also, as this revolution is ever more closely tied to other, more powerful cultures, there may be little left here that a man might call his own; and if this is so, the man who is in rebellion against this will find himself an outsider, with no cause to defend save the sterile position of archaic national values. And finally, if all this constitutes a Puerto Rican “problem,” where and how is a human being to find the serenity in which to devise a philosophy to cope with it?
These are not peculiarly Puerto Rican problems. Next to them, next to the heartache of finding a place in this new world for what one holds most dear, one’s momentary irritation with the sun and sloth, with gentleness and pride, should be as nothing. Let the lion lie down with the lamb: much may come of the peaceable kingdom.
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico
I am listing a number of points that Mr. Kazin must have invented. Beneath each one I have indicated the reality he is probably referring to. His sweeping generalities are more difficult to refute than specific points. By and large, though, they are the generalizations of a man who never really left his home in the States. According to Mr. Kazin, Puerto Rico has no values, except the dubious one of illustrating what “colonialism” might do to people who live in the tropics. In reality, “colonialism” has done nothing here that a few good meals and a few acres of arable land couldn’t cure.
- The ice cream truck plays “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” not Brahms’s “Lullaby.”
- Puerto Ricans like tasteless ice cream.
- The only rows of identical pink and blue stucco houses in Puerto Rico existed in Mr. Kazin’s mind. Even in large housing projects, where the law requires a master plan, the houses are painted different colors and face different directions. After a year, there is not a single house in a single development that looks the same. One of the basic drives of a Puerto Rican is individuality, and he will so alter his new house that it will be made unrecognizable from year to year.
- Time is not any longer here than it is anywhere else.
- The fields are never garbage-strewn. Puerto Ricans pride themselves on their clean island.
- The 65th Infantry Road does not lead to the airport. Mr. Kazin lived on North Avenue, though he evidently never got that straight. He also never learned Spanish, though he cries out against the Spanish-speaking population that doesn’t learn English.
- The heat may “clamp you around the back and the chest,” but weren’t the trade winds deliciously cool each day?
- Manhattan, too, gives numbers to its streets and houses. How odd that San Juan should follow the same custom.
- Mr. Kazin failed to remark that the “brown-faced men and women . . . going to work” had no work to go to ten years ago.
- I can understand the “curious stillness” Mr. Kazin found among Puerto Ricans. I attended his lectures and, despite the fact that my English is fairly presentable, I never got up the courage to stand up and suggest something to this determined and infinitely knowledgeable instructor. Besides, his pronunciation of English was unintelligible more times than not.
- Juvenile violence is new to Puerto Rico, but not because the youngsters bring it with them when they return from the States. I suggest that the growth of any big city, including San Juan, sows seeds of violence.
- Not all Americans “bark questions in the language they do not know and no longer even pretend to know.” Some Americans speak mildly, and some Puerto Ricans (every high school graduate) pretend to know enough English to get by.
- What is “Step’n Fetchit sloth”?
- Some Puerto Rican drivers do speed, and others sometimes drive without their entire families. Especially the ones that drive to work.
- Supermarkets have cashiers who really do speak English. Besides Grand Union, there is also Pueblo, Co-op and a number of other local supermarket chains.
- I’m sure the student quoted by Mr. Kazin received little help in his class. At least it’s obvious that no sympathy was wasted on him.
- What can one say in answer to the statement that Puerto Ricans are “the submerged colonial mass incarnate.” Come now!
- There is no racism and little of “the bush” in Puerto Rico.
- The purely white areas (yes, there are one or two) also have breast-feeding patterns.
- The boy with the coconuts might also move into a factory, open a store, write a book, or murder a man. It all depends on the opportunities.
- The Puerto Ricans do live on an island, but they are also the hosts for more than 8,000 representatives of underdeveloped countries who come here to see how it’s done.
- Richard Morse, too, spent less than six months closeted in the university here.
- There is still a difference between “the spontaneous spirit of organization and economic thrift” and a cultural tradition, although Mr. Kazin seems to feel the latter impossible without the former. He seems to be looking for cultural traditions as evidenced by significant class differences, something Puerto Rico does not share with the United States. Puerto Rico seems as organized as it needs to be. Don’t forget that, aside from Venezuela which has oil, it leads Latin America in living standards.
- In looking for a “positive ideal . . . for which they seek expression and fulfillment,” Mr. Kazin has missed the boat. There are few fanatics here, great love, and a concern for something once known as “Christian humility.”
- “Puerto Ricans are often as illiterate in Spanish as they remain in English,” says Kazin. Which language would his children be illiterate in if they too went to school in East Harlem?
- Puerto Rican soldiers left the island to fly straight to Korea. When could they have found time to learn English? Besides, I’m sure Wakefield exaggerates. Many Puerto Rican soldiers must have spoken English. The casualties they suffered were due to the dangerous assignments handed to them.
- J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is now here and will take a new university seat here next year, happens to speak highly of the same university students that Kazin berates.
- Muñoz Marín is far from a father. He is an active politician who is currently fighting tooth and nail to retain his power against the growing popularity of Ferre, another politician who heads the Statehood party. But, then again, Ferre may be a father too.
- Which Republican has “repeatedly expressed contempt for Puerto Rico and all its works”?
- If Puerto Rico’s experience had been one of “dependency” it would have drowned in starvation long ago.
- How can an island that measures a hundred by thirty miles and holds two-and-a-half million people lack unity?
- The “hideous economy flight” is also heavily traveled by tourists.
- Cars also carry Commonwealth and Independence stickers.
- Statehood is far from inconceivable. Last month, 75,000 jibaros turned up to hear Ferre speak at a statehood rally.
- If Puerto Rico, as a nation, is powerless, how explain the laudable picketing and opposition that met the House Un-American Activities Committee? Not even organizations in the States were powerful enough to muster a protest like this one.
- Do all American businessmen have no culture?
- Liquor from the Virgin Islands to be consumed in Puerto Rico is taxed.
- An island with 15 per cent of its labor force unemployed is not exactly a “perpetual New Year’s Eve party.”
- Castaner is a Puerto Rican project currently employing Nathan Leopold.
- “Wonderful Spanish Loyalist scholars”?
- Americans have lost their mark “to shoot at” long before they get to Puerto Rico. But some Americans also come to enjoy the climate and raise their children. Others, like Mr. Kazin, may come to teach at the University.
Santurce, Puerto Rico
Shortly after my impressions of Puerto Rico appeared in this magazine, I gave the new English-language daily on the island, the San Juan Star, permission to reprint the article. The editors surely did not ask for it in order to offend their readers; no doubt they thought it merely “controversial.” But as soon as the first installment appeared, a wave of outraged letters hit the paper. The editors, who were now on the spot for having taken the article, turned self-righteous. The next day, in addition to columns of vituperative letters, there was an editorial denouncing me, and a special columnist was brought in to explain the origins in background and character that had led to my unheard-of deed. Day after day the attacks continued. When one lone correspondent wrote in to say that he agreed with my general evaluation of what the chief Puerto Rican problems were, and that yes, he had seen garbage in the fields and that I had actually underestimated the number of times the maddening ice-cream wagon went up and down his street, the poor man found himself denounced in a rival newspaper as well!
One of the most vicious letters was a wholly personal attack on me by Mr. Keith Botsford, a young instructor at the University—a letter so blindly emotional that apparently he himself now regrets writing it. I am glad to hear of the pleasure he takes now in Puerto Rico and of his affection and respect for its people. I share them. Mr. Botsford has written two letters about my article—one was entirely about me, and the other, as it were, is about himself. Since the subject of my article was Puerto Rico, I leave it to others to judge Mr. Botsford’s personal motives for these attacks and whether my integrity as a teacher needs defending.
After reading Mr. Silver’s list of my various “errors,” crimes, and misdemeanors, I made the following mental speech:
Gentlemen and Visiting Professors: never criticize anything about Puerto Rico. For if you do, you will discover that you can’t pronounce English words, that your lectures were terrible, that you “berated” your students, that you are an intellectual, and that you are unfeeling about the unemployed. Don’t say that the September heat in Rio Piedras is stultifying; what about the Scottsboro boys? Don’t say (in reference to your expressed hope that Puerto Ricans will take full advantage of their American citizenship and not just suffer it), that the greatest pride of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s father was in being an American citizen; J. Robert Oppenheimer is coming to the University of Puerto Rico! Don’t say that American businessmen on expense account jaunts to Puerto Rico are soft and gross and drink too much; you are insulting somebody, probably the natives! Don’t report what Puerto Rican writers and intellectuals said to you time and again at the university about the difficulties and contradictions of a colonial culture; Mr. Silver knows what every ice-cream wagon plays all over Puerto Rico!
Errors? “Forty-one Errors”? Mr. Silver obviously thinks that the real error is for a writer to publish any piece of personal reportage, any essay warmly communicating personal impressions, feelings, difficulties in a new country. Unfortunately, Mr. Silver on specific points is either irrelevant or trivial. It is typical of the kind of attack that my essay on Puerto Rico calls up that Mr. Silver should tell me that I lived on North Avenue when I lived on a street that had no name at all, and that I, who had to gaze at the damned things from my window day after day, should be told that “the fields are never garbage-strewn.”
Since Mr. Silver has so angrily missed the point I made in referring to Oppenheimer père, I am not surprised at his informing me that Nathan Leopold works at Castaner. Relevance? Actually, all my information about its medical services comes from Leopold. His point about the boy with the coconuts I follow—but what has it to do with my original reference? The famous Republican leader who “repeatedly expressed contempt for Puerto Rico and all its works” did so in a private interview with an editor; I am not privileged to give his name, but I can assure Mr. Silver that he exists—and that I detest his opinions. The Dean of the College of Humanities was a Spanish Loyalist; there are others. When I said that the excellent Muñoz Marin was “fatherly,” I was describing the paternalistic influence of the Puerto Rican elite; Mr. Silver heavily explains that the Governor’s political rival, Ferre, “may be a father, too.” Devastating! I described the “war of stickers” myself; of course the “hideous economy flight” is traveled by tourists—my point was that it shows disrespect for the main group of passengers, the Puerto Ricans themselves, as they go back and forth. How has Mr. Silver answered me?
For the rest, may I say that I know Brahms’s “Lullaby” when I hear it. And while I should have said “the highway to the airport” instead of the 65th Infantry Road, the two highways are connected by a country road, and there are signs all along the 65th Infantry Road showing “the way to the airport.”