Today nearly one-third of the Puerto Rican people live in the “Diaspora”; they are homogeneous people who have migrated and dispersed. Puerto Rico today is a multi-racial, Spanish speaking society. The Puerto Rican is bound together by four centuries of Hispano-Antillean culture.
Many first generation Europeans surrender their ethnicity when they settle in the United States, and theirs is usually a one way move. In contrast the Puerto Rican has a great deal of difficulty doing this because he has the problem of identifying with the white or black population while still trying to keep an ethnic balance. Some say the most crucial issue for the second generation Puerto Rican is the search for ethnicity.
A nation’s literature can help define and proliferate this search.
Until the 1940’s and 50’s most Puerto Rican literature was written in the traditional Spanish style (folklore and vignettes). With the large influx of immigrants from Spain and South America, : true Creole literature began to blossom as Puerto Rico developed its own personality.
At the forefront of the writers of this time period were playwright Alejandro Lapia y Rivera (1826Ð1882); poets Lola Rodriguez de Tio (1854Ð1924), José de Diego (1866Ð1918) and José Gautier Ben’tez (1848Ð1880); and essayists Salvador Bran (1842 1912), Cayetano Coll y Toste (1850Ð1930), Manuel Fernandez Juncos (1846Ð1928), and Eugenio Mar’a de Hostos (1839Ð1903).
a major work published in 1849, is a sketch of the island’s rural, agrarian society. The author Manuel A. Alonso wrote of the dances, cock fighting, marriages, slang and music. The first real novel was written by Manuel Zeno-Gandia in 1898. It told of the harsh life in the remote and mountainous coffee region.
This was mainly the type of literature that came out of Puerto Rico until 1898, when suddenly life took a new course. The language of the conquerors from the north was Shakespeare and not Cervantes and the culture was not from mother Spain. Puerto Ricans were faced with a whole new set of rules that was totally foreign. In 1917 when Puerto Ricans became citizens of the United States a conflict arose in all walks of Puerto Rican life including its literature.
After the United States took over in 1898, Puerto Rico remained a poor, agrarian, semi-feudal society. Life was harsh, but in a traditional sense there was at least a sense of stability. In
Three Men by the River
, Marqués decries the loss of that stability that occurred when the people began to emigrate to the mainland. Before 1898, he says, “Everything in the universe had made sense, and that which did not was the doing of the gods.”
World War II brought social change, the machine age was beginning to replace farming as the basic source of earnings. This decline in farming created a void for many whose lifestyle was closely connected to the land. This decline caused the cities to be overrun by migrants ill-equipped to deal with the new set of circumstances. Their traditions broken, these people then moved to the crumbling tenements and to hostility. The new wave of literature reflected the crisis.
Enrique Laguerre (1906Ð) was the first author to describe this period of turmoil. He wrote “I am conscious of a wide world, inhabited by millions of humans, but each of us needs a friendly place to stand on.” It seems Puerto Rico was not that place. That Puerto Rico was an island in turmoil is reflected in the literature of those troubled times.
The first piece of literature I have chosen to discuss here is a play entitled
THE OXCART is a powerful three act play written by René Marqués, probably Puerto Rico’s most important contemporary playwright. Marqués was born on October 4, 1919, in the city of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. The playwright’s initial training took place at the College of Agriculture in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He also spent two years with the Department of Agriculture. This type training occurred because he came from an agricultural family and his roots were both in the soil and in the tradition of the land.
He became interested in literature and in 1946 went to Spain to study for a year at the University of Madrid. It was here that he became familiar with the theater. On returning to Puerto Rico he founded a theater group in Arecibo. He also started writing reviews and literary criticisms. In 1948 he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study playwrighting. The following year he studied at Columbia University. In 1950 to 1951 he wrote THE OXCART.
In his writings Marqués addresses the problem of the Puerto Rican’s divided loyalties. Under the influence of the United States, the Puerto Rican exists in “a schizophrenic society. Puerto Ricans have two languages, two citizenships, two basic philosophies of life, two flags, two anthems, two loyalties. It is very hard for human beings to deal with all this ambivalence.”
Another theme that Marqués develops in his writings is the notion that man is in some way tied to his own environment. Throughout Puerto Rican literature, poems, prose, and plays this topic is always stressed.
centers around hope, the essence of many poor people. The main characters come from the mountains where they are poor farmers. They have very little property, tools or money to make the land profitable. Beneath the struggle for survival is a battle to maintain their dignity, and according to the author, considering all options, only the land and keeping with tradition offer dignity.
The first act opens on a small farm in a rural mountain district in Puerto Rico. After a general description of the property, one realizes that the characters are extremely poor. The list of characters includes the grandfather, his widowed daughter, her three children: Luis, her eldest adopted son, Juanita the daughter, Chaguito her youngest son, and a neighbor.
The family has exhausted whatever limited resources they had and are in the process of moving to the city of San Juan, in the slum section.
Two main themes are played against each other, one represented by the grandfather who stands for dignity (the dignity of the land). The other is represented by Luis, who stands for a break with tradition. The fact that Luis is adopted and senses he is alone and not part of the family is a statement by the author against the diasporic condition that Puerto Rico finds itself engulfed in. The answer does not lie in the adopting of another country’s tradition. The grandfather, who does not leave with the family, represents the natural environment, the old ways. He chooses to stay, totally impoverished. He dies sleeping in a cave, his dignity intact, reborn to the land.
Act Two is situated in the slum district of San Juan. The entire situation is the same, though the site is different. The naiveté of the family shows in their hopes and dreams. The middle act is the middle ground and just exacerbates their condition.
Here they have neither the dignity of the land nor the earnings of the mechanized North. “ The smells! The noises! Not even the sea can wash them away. Damn sea. The air gets dirty and harmful. What good is so much water if it can’t clean all this filth? The air in the mountains was clean.”
The essence of this act is poignantly felt in the above lines. Again it is two environs played against each other. The land represents tradition, the sea represents the new ways.
The section of San Juan has slowly become a slum section simply because it has become inhabited with people not equipped to deal with the environment.
The Third Act is set in New York City. The family finds its standard of living has improved somewhat at the expense of their dignity and freedom. These people have lost control of their lives. Luis, believing that their future lies in the industrial world, has become a slave to the mechanized idea and has lost his freedom. The daughter, Juanita, through an unfortunate series of events, has sacrificed her dignity by apparently prostituting herself to earn extra money. The mother, Dona Gabriela, is losing her will to live. These are people who have lost their identity because they are out of their medium. An industrial accident kills Luis, and the family, with renewed hope decide to go back to Puerto Rico where they will find their true meaning. They may not improve their lot in life, but they may gain an understanding of who they are.
There is a circularity present that seems inescapable—everything changes, nothing changes.
A short story by Marqués entitled
THREE MEN BY THE RIVER
also addresses the concept of tradition.
The plot deals with the Ta’no Indians, early inhabitants of Puerto Rico, and their domination by the Spanish Conquistadors. Their beliefs told them to expect a god to come from the sea. And as history tells us when the Spaniards arrived the Indians welcomed them with great awe. The Indians were brutally treated? which caused some seeds of doubt as to just who and what these oppressive strangers were.
After three of the Indians in the tale intentionally drown one of the “gods” they pull him to shore and sit a three day vigil over his body to see if he truly is a god and can come back to life. Through this experience they come to realize that his rotting body is as human as theirs and that they are free (only from the concept that their conquerors are gods). Now they can attempt to rid themselves of their oppressors and regain their own tradition.
One statement the author is making is that traditions have been broken, the land forsaken, and dignity lost. Freedom and dignity, though they may be only a concept, are better than empty dreams. Only a few will profit from such dreams.
The next story is by Abelardo Diaz Alfara (1917Ð) who wrote
, a book of rural short stories. I have chosen two stories by Alfaro, the first one entitled
is a story about a Puerto Rican bull who is replaced by an American bull to improve the breeding line. Although the story is a humorous tale about rural life, the underlying theme is about a replacement of values, i.e. North American values over Puerto Rican values. A fight occurs between the two bulls and although the native bull is superior in a head to head confrontation, the native bull is still put out to pasture while the North American bull is put to stud. The author is saying that the new values are trumpeted, displayed, and supposedly all redeeming, while old traditional values, though they may be at least as good as the new values, lie covered and broken under the weight of their own deserted and pathetic gyrations. He deplores the idea that the Puerto Rican culture is losing its identity.
PEYO MERCK: ENGLISH TEACHER
is another story which tells of bond between man and his environment. Again we see a rural agrarian situation, a school teacher from the mountains forced to break from tradition and teach English to a backwoods group of children. Looming in the background are the latest techniques of personality traits, child psychology, and fixed model classes. Peyo in a bit of frustration calls the English language, “Language of the devil” . . . a resentment of the North American influence. Peyo is filled with indignation over the fact that he has to teach English to his students. His indignation is somewhat diminished as his students enter the classroom: “He loved them because they were his own kind and because for each of them he envisioned a destiny as dark as the night becomes just before a storm.”
There is a sadness in this line that echoes from their Indian heritage, a melancholy that forebodes unhappiness, their “Hungry eyes on withered faces.” And yet there is deep and fierce pride that comes from a marriage bonded by history to the land of the Borinquen.