The above areas provide the setting for “The Oxcart” and an understanding of these forces is necessary for a deeper insight into the play. The four centuries of Spanish colonial rule which dominated Puerto Rico, although never specifically mentioned in the play, form the background upon which it is structured. Spain’s stronghold was broken when the United States stepped in as a result of the War of 1898. Although the Jones Act of 1917 granted U.S. citizenship to the islanders, the first local government based on a popular election of their chief executive was not in effect until 1947.
This colonialist mentality is believed by Marqués to be the most pervasive characteristic of the Puerto Rican population, leading to the docility and submissiveness experienced by the majority of the characters in “The Oxcart”. The playwright believes that colonialization has led to a gradual erosion of Puerto Rican culture and a slow but persistant destruction of their sense of identity. According to Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party, the essential goal of any colonial regime is the cultural assimilation of the colonized people.
And Franz Fanon follows this reasoning by stating that colonialism creates in the minds of the colonized people a sense of inferiority, a feeling of impotence and self-destruction, and a desire to negate themselves by becoming more like the colonialist. Thus aggressiveness takes the form of internal aggressiveness against one’s own group and leads to the typical responses of colonialization—submission, not liberation, assimilation, not the struggle for identity.
The reasons for the family’s migration in “The Oxcart” are economic and historical. One time landowners and coffee growers, the family was reduced to poverty by the decline of interest in coffee cultivation and the imposition of the sugar cane monoculture. By 1940, even the sugar cane producers could not cope with mechanized beet and sugar cane from other areas (continental states and duty-free offshore areas like Hawaii and the Phillipines) and the relatively high production costs. Do–a Gabriela’s husband could not get used to the new crop: “He never understood sugar cane. He didn’t like it”.
The Commonwealth government fostered the mass migration of unemployed farm workers as an “escape valve” to help ease the pressures of population growth. The current migration is among those age groups whose economic productivity is greatest—15 to 19 years old—in order to ease the acute unemployment problem in Puerto Rico.
The Commonwealth status, according to Marqués, creates a cultural schizophrenia in which neither statehood nor independence is enjoyed and the characters of “The Oxcart” are therefore alienated and insecure. The islanders, although citizens, cannot vote in Presidential elections and the resident commissioner, who represents Puerto Rico in the U.S. Congress, has a voice, but no vote. On the other hand, Puerto Ricans are subject to obligatory military service in the U.S. armed forces.
The increasing industrialization of the island by the U.S. since the 1940’s is seen as a negative influence by Marqués, an ardent believer in the independence movement. He is vehemently opposed to the transformation by U.S. dollars of Puerto Rico into a complex industrial system. Marqués sees the islanders’ willingness to accept the increased material gains that ensue as a result of this productivity as a loss of their human values. Many Puerto Ricans, now dependent on the U.S. for their physical well-being, are hesitant to cut the umbilical cord. Marqués feels that a feeling of impotence is produced. He sees this fostering of material, egotistical needs over more spiritual ones as a “sellout” of a national identity for economic gain, and it is this return to the source of Puerto Rican identity—the land—which provides the element of conflict in “The Oxcart”. The assimilation and dissolution into American society in which greed for power and money dominates the scene is used by Marqués as the point of departure from which to show the dangers of an almost Chaplinesque “Modern Times”.
A socio/psychological understanding of Puerto Rican culture is imperative to a deeper look into the play. The shift in the role of the Puerto Rican child from the customary responses on the island to the example set by their American peers is one example of cultural differences and is seen in the play particularly in the character of Luis. The American child, encouraged to ask “why”, to be self-reliant, aggressive, competitive and independent, is not the ideal fostered by Puerto Rican parents, in whose culture the family as a strong interdependent unit is the norm. The delinquency of Luis in the play can be seen as a rebellion against the excessive confinement imposed upon him in an effort to protect him from these forces.
The role of the Puerto Rican girl idealized in her culture as a virgin until marriage ia confronted in the play in the character of Juanita. She rebels against this image, turning to the street and prostitution, thus undermining the family’s traditional esteem and prestige in the community. This tension between parents and daughters is one of the most difficult for Puerto Rican families to manage once they settle on the mainland, since the freedom encouraged by the American system of child rearing is considered immoral by Puerto Rican standards.
Three kinds of adjustment are seen by sociologists as a response by the new group in the context of a larger society and each of these reactions is personified in the play through specific characters. The first adjustment is escape from the parent group in which a person becomes as much like members of the established community as possible in the shortest amount of time. The role of Luis illustrates this response in “The Oxcart” as he encourages the family to uproot from the land and disassociate itself from the past. He thus changes his reference group and puts himself in the position of being marginal, with no assurances that he will be accepted by the larger community. He finds himself in a no-man’s land of culture where he and his family are vulnerable to the dangers of personal frustration. His grandfather, Don Chago, on the other hand, characterizes the second type of adjustment cited by sociologists, that of complete withdrawal into the old culture, and an uncompromising resistance to the new. He will not go along with the family’s decision to seek a “better” life in the city and chooses to retain his old identity. The third response—that of building a cultural “bridge”—is seen in the character of the disc jockey, Paco, who has made it in New York. He is confident and secure in his Puerto Rican culture and seeks to establish himself in the dominant society, continuing to identify himself with his forebears.