One definition of culture is a way of life practiced by a group of people; a historically derived system of standardized forms of behavior, which is acquired by the individual as a member of a society. Culture is learned behavior. It is the society’s systems of belief, social institutions, technology, and material possessions. The Puerto Rican culture stems from its physical environment, its history and its racial mixture.
The Puerto Rican culture began to develop in the pre-Hispanic Indian migrations. It was mixed with the Spanish and African presence. This mixture became the rich Puerto Rican culture of today. Mar’a Teresa Bab’n mentions a multitude of factors which influenced the evolution of Puerto Rican culture.
Some of the factors are:
1. The island was a colony of the vast Spanish Empire. There is a definite imprint of Spanish literary and artistic trends.
2. The mix of Indians, Spanish, and Black elements is totally entwined in the ethnic and spiritual structure of the population.
3. Although it has been an American possession since 1898, the island’s language has been primarily Spanish with much of its literature written in Spanish.
4. The music, arts, and folklore are totally tuned to all the elements of the island.
5. Since 1917 Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States, and there is a constant flow to the United States and back which also has an effect on the Puerto Rican culture.
6. The Puerto Ricans love their native land, and this is constantly expressed in their arts.
In pre-Colombian times, accounts of early visitors who described the early landscape and inhabitants, together with letters, chronicles, and epic poems and of the first governors, settlers and missionaries provide a rich cultural history of the island of Puerto Rico. Arturo Carrión in his study of Puerto Rico mentions the heritage of the Ta’nos. “A legendary vein flows from that perennial fountain of Borinquen ancestry. It can be tasted in the subtle achiote (annato) coloring of the native foods as well as in the vibrant notes of a güiro or in a cuatro or in the steps and figures of a bomba (typical dance with strong African influence) in the palm forest of small remote towns.
Carrión has commented on the mixing of ethnic strains in the literature of Puerto Rico. “From the heart of the Rio de la Plata or Rio Grande, through the mountains such as the Asomante and the Tres Picachos (Three Peaks) the written testimony of the Puerto Rican creativity seems to be dedicated by the echo of millions of voices whose sound has been made part of the wind, the waves, the air, and the earth.”
In an oral literature, as well as in written literature, the Puerto Rican people have expressed themselves. “The J’baro and the slum dweller continue to tell stories orally, in which the daily life and nightmares and dreams become legends that beautify the reality of the island’s past and present.”
Carrión states that this search for identity, this seeking out a better present through looking at the past, is a trend that is gaining momentum. The Puerto Rican is in search of an image, “in all sources of the inner self.”
He also writes, “Puerto Rico is a most homogenous and congenial country in terms of spiritual and emotional communication among its people. The poor and the rich, the well educated and the humble peasants understand the same signs, and respond to the same silent motions, like and dislike, the same flavors and speak the same language of love, of despair, of hope and of rage.”
Carrión suggests that the Puerto Rican writers express a oneness as a people, and that the absence of writers from their native soil kindles their imagination and makes them think of their native land nostalgically. This looking back on the part of these writers has continued through the twentieth century. “The pervading force of history in the tropics through the centuries, the menace of heavy rains, devastating floods, swarms of mosquitoes, thunder and lightning, earth tremors, and mysterious beings with long hair, pale faces, and moaning voices, all these enlighten the metaphors and the rhetoric of the Puerto Rican writer.”
In 1898, Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States. With this turn of events, Puerto Rican men of letters were placed under a great deal of strain. They had come under a new influence, a different language, and new traditions. They had been nurtured in Spanish and their writings cherished their loyalties to the past. There has been a cultural struggle since then, for they fear the extinction of the country’s language and mores. Much of the writings of the early years reflect a resistance of the people to the United States’ influence. One somber view in the decline of social life in the early decades in Puerto Rico is described in Antonio S. Pedreira’s
written in 1934:
Long ago, innumerable towns on the island maintained an exquisite social life, in which there alternated concerts, soirees, open-air band programs, patron saint fiestas, groups of aficionados, gatherings in homes and religious solemnities. Humacas, Guayama, Juana D’az, San Germán, etc. so inclined with the culture of old, are today mere municipalities. Mayagüez, the center of innumerable cultural events, is today a factory town. Only Ponce gently resist this annihilating contamination.
Despite “this annihilating contamination”, Puerto Rican artist have developed in all artistic media since 1950. The establishment of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture has sponsored many artistic endeavors. The Puerto Rican
is a distinguished and graceful musical composition still played in the concert halls of today.
Plastic art is another development which is well under way in Puerto Rico. Painting has flourished the most. Significant accomplishments in this field have been made by José Campeche (1752Ð1809); Francis Oller (1833Ð1917); and Ramón Frade (1875Ð1954). Culture provides a strong unifying element regardless of the outside influence.
The Puerto Ricans who have left the island for the United States still maintain a strong identity with Puerto Rico. He (the Puerto Rican) still speaks Spanish, still prefers the Puerto Rican foods, and his own music. Carrión writes:
For the purpose of Puerto Rico at all social levels—the poor and the wealthy, the illiterate and the intellectual, the peasant and the town and city dweller, the concept of mia case, mia patria, mia tierra is an unseparable trilogy.
Puerto Ricans have been coming to the United States since the nineteenth century. The peak year for Puerto Rican migration to the United States is considered to be 1950. Family, friends and neighbors make an unending chain that is Puerto Rico itself, no matter where Puerto Ricans find themselves. Puerto Ricans are “exiled” throughout the globe, not for political reasons, but simply because the island cannot support the economic demands of its population. Children of Puerto Rican parents, offspring of mixed marriages continue to identify themselves as Puerto Ricans. Many times these people have journeyed from mountains to towns, to slums, to cities of the United States and back in an attempt to find their identity and maintain their dignity. Many Puerto Ricans have left the harsh home life for the slums of New York City. Their dream of finding a better life is shattered by the reality of the slums there.
Pedro Juan Soto in “That Old Fragrance”, a short story dated 1960, expresses the difficulty that Puerto Ricans experience when they come to the United States in search of a livelihood:
The national and personal identity crisis of the Puerto Rican in New York is not solely with money. The clash with an anonymous lifestyle is very deplorable. The colonial Puerto Rican goes to New York without knowing who he really is, where he comes from, and toward what future he is moving.
Meeting with difficulties on the mainland, the Puerto Rican emigrant dreams of returning home to his beautiful island. This idea is delicately and pathetically expressed in a short story by Jesus Colon entitled “Grandma Please Don’t Come”.
All people, North Americans and Puerto Ricans alike, are looking to the day, when they can spend the last years of their lives on a tropical isle—a paradise on earth surrounded by clear blue sea imprisoned in a belt of golden beaches. A land perfumed with natures’ choicest fragrances. For many of us this is a dream that will never be realized. The boasted “American way of life” has taken out of us the best of our energies to reach that dream.
Grandma, you are there on that beautiful isle. You were born there. You have been there all your life. You now have what most people here dream about. Don’t let sentimental letters and life-colored photographs lure you from your island, from your nation, from yourself. Grandma, please, please! do not come!