The Contributions of Latin American Culture in the United States
aim—To have students become aware of the influence of Hispanic culture in their everyday lives.
We are fortunate enough in the U.S. to be a cross section of cultures. Every day we go about eating ethnic foods, listening to ethnic music, saying ethnic names, but rarely do we consciously attribute what we’re experiencing to its historical origins. These things have become incorporated into our everyday lives and are considered part of our American culture. It would be scandalous not to give recognition to each contribution.
The Heritage of Puerto Rico and Cuba
with this section, the educator will familiarize the students with the term Latin Americans and have the students realize their contributions in areas they can relate to—themselves. This can be a class project that not only is educational but fun for all. Not only will it get the students to think, it will lead to lively discussions and opinions.
As a preliminary step it is helpful to use a map/globe to locate Latin American countries. Then place on the board the following categories: food, celebrations, entertainment, celebrities, and names. Ask the question: List as many Latin American contributions as you can in each area. Allow some time before you begin each category. Each category will bring about a volley of answers and commentaries.
The following are possible responses:
Food—tacos, nachos, burritos, pi¤a coladas, rice and beans
Celebrations—Three Kings Day, Puerto Rican Day Parade
Entertainment—La Bamba, Miami Sound Machine, Salsa, Conga, UNI
Celebrities—Menudo, Desi Arnaz, Paul Rodriguez, Raul Julia, Gloria Estefan
Names—San Antonio, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Barbeque (from Ta’no Indian word barbacoa)
Bringing the last category closer to home seems to benefit the section’s objectives. In New Haven there are street names that illustrate Latin American influence. Among them are Columbus Ave., named for Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the area, and José Mart’, named for a famous Cuban writer and independence fighter. Both will be discussed in Section II. The latter will also be covered in Section III and Lesson Plan #1.
To better reinforce the objective samplings from the categories should be available in class. These may either be brought in by the students or the educator. The album Primitive Love by Miami Sound Machine is quite applicable and can lead to a class Conga line. Depending on the age of the students and the facilities available, having the students prepare foods or bring in foods is always a success. Travel brochures are available at travel agencies. They, coupled with magazine photos, can be transferred into a pertinent collage.
An educational trend toward acquainting students with their nationalities’ histories is taking precedence over the repeated biographical examples of major U.S. immigrants and migrants. The main objective of this section is to get the students in touch with and prepared for the histories of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Knowing that they have experienced much of the Latin American culture, i.e. foods, entertainment, celebrations, makes the subject less alien to them; therefore, they are more receptive to the ensuing sections.
II. The Histories of Puerto Rico and Cuba
aim—To have students acquire an historical knowledge of two Caribbean neighbors—Puerto Rico and Cuba.
The Crusades were responsible for bringing to Europe imported treasures that were coveted. The nations tired of filling the pockets of the Italian city-states that were acting as middlemen. An alternate route was needed. Christopher Columbus devised a plan to reach the East by traveling West. The British decided to back Columbus, but it was too late, Spain had already signed an agreement with Columbus.
With profit being the motivating factor of the journey, Columbus was unsuccessful. He sailed within twenty miles of the Mayan ruins and was just hairs from the pearl fisheries in Columbia. His journeys did take him to both Puerto Rico and Cuba. Claimed by the Spanish, the islands were subsequently settled by people obsessed by the Three G’s—Gold, Glory, and Gospel. Neither Cuba nor Puerto Rico was initially as profitable as Mexico and certain parts of South America. In order to gain the most from these possessions agriculture was to be developed. The Spanish tradition of not sullying one’s hands led to the use of Indians as laborers. To better facilitate this aim Queen Isabella issued an order on December 20, 1503. In the document she compelled the governors of the possessions to ‘compel and force’ the Indians to do the labor. (Wagenheim, p. 18) Subsequently, literally millions of Indians were worked to death.
Bartolomé de las Casas (1474-1566), a Dominican monk, was appalled at the treatment the Spaniards bestowed on the Indians. He crusaded for the natives, pled their case to King Ferdinand (1515), wrote the
Historia de las India
, and was appointed the ‘Protector of the Indians’. In his role as the latter, he suggested something he would regret for the rest of his life. He proposed that instead of Indians, Black slaves be used in the mines and plantations. African slaves were imported in 1518.
There emerged in the possessions a very rigid caste system. (Many Indians had also had one.) The Spanish class system was triangular. At the top were the
, those born on the Iberian Peninsula. They were the only ones who could hold top administrative positions. Next were the
, sons and daughters of Europeans born in the possessions. They had status, gained wealth, but had no administrative power. Constituting the lower echelons were the Mestizos, half Indian half European; the Mulattoes, half black half European; the Indians, the Negroes, and the Sambos, half black half Indian.
When Columbus landed in Cuba (1492), he commented that it was “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen” (Suchlicki, p. 3). Already on the island were the Guanahatabeyes, a fading Indian tribe; the Ciboney, a stone age tribe; and the Ta’nos, a more advanced tribe that subjugated the Ciboney; and the Caribs (word meaning cannibal), a tribe that was threatening the Ta’nos. Easily subdued, the Indians became the minority and were relegated to near extinction by the Spaniards.
From 1492-1517 Cuba became the center of the Spanish Empire in the Caribbean. Later sugar became king. As with any monoculture, problems would arise. Spain was very strict about trading operations in the possessions. Shipments had to go directly to Spain and had to originate Spain. This added economic strain to a non-diversified island.
Political tension also mounted due to the Criollos’ inability to govern the island. The liberal constitutional periods of Spain (1812Ð1814 and 1820-1823) granted Cuba a respite from authoritarian leadership. However, in 1825 Spain placed Cuba under Martial Law. Fearful of losing Cuba to another power coupled with the growing slavery issue caused Spain to further squash Cuban civil rights and foreign trade.
Early Puerto Rico
When the Spaniards landed on the island of Boriquen they renamed it San Juan and its major city Puerto Rico. It was renamed when the king erroneously addressed communication to the island. He mixed up the names and rather than offend the king, the settlers switched the names. The Spaniards were not pleased with the hostile Indians, mosquitos, wild ants, and hurricanes (named after the Indian God Hurucan who came in storms). They did little with it for 15 years.
Ponce de Leon was the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1508, but he quickly left in pursuits of his own. San Juan was frequently besieged by pirates including Sir Francis Drake, Captain Morgan, and the Earl of Cumberland. Spain built protective fortifications, such as La Fortaleza, El Moro, and San Cristobal. The former is the oldest and presently is the governor’s official residence. Ironically, the Spaniards and Puerto Ricans would eventually turn to piracy when they exhausted their funds and were in dire need of provisions.
King Carlos III sent Alejandro O’Reilly to the costly colony in 1765. The objective was to turn the island’s economy around. In his report (Wagenheim, pp. 29-33) he recommended that sugar be added, a refinery be set up, more immigrants come to Puerto Rico (not just for penal reasons), and that the garrison be strengthened. None of O’Reilly’s recommendations were carried out.
Primarily dealing with horse raising, Puerto Rico could not feed itself. Tired of facilitating Spanish restrictions, they clandestinely traded with the U.S. colonies. Relations between the two were good and became better after the U.S. gained its independence. Spain periodically eased trade restrictions imposed on Puerto Rico. With regard to the U.S. colonies, it eased restrictions during the American Revolution, but upon the peace treaty angrily tightened them up again.
Spain made promises regarding Puerto Rican legislation that never were actualized. As with Cuba, Puerto Rico remained under the strict control of Spanish governors.
Independence from Spain
Beset by frustrations and fitting into the 19th century Latin American pattern of independence movements, leaders began to emerge in both Puerto Rico (Hostos, Betances) and Cuba (Mart’, Gómez, Maceo, Céspedes). Penetrating sounds screaming with outrage resonated in both Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1868.
Grito de Yara—
October 10, 1868. The Cuban people were becoming increasingly disillusioned with despotic rule especially under Captain General Francisco Lersundi (1867-69). The Criollos population was embittered by Spain’s attempt to diminish the importance they were attaining. Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, a son of a wealthy Oriente landowner, led a group of Criollo landowners, lawyers, professionals, peasants, Chinese, and blacks. The latter three were added once it was realized that all Cubans had to support the group movement if it was to succeed. Abolition of slavery then became a rallying cry. Retrospectively, when Céspedes realized the movement had been compromised by an informant, from his plantation he issued the Grito de Yara declaring Cuba’s independence from Spain. Joining the movement were Antonio Maceo, a mulatto from Santiago de Cuba, and Maximo Gomez, a black Dominican. Both would attain the position of general. The unsuccessful war lasted 10 years. However, Cuba did gain a common cause, a national anthem, national flag, and national weapon—the machete. It also paved the way for José Mart’, the ‘Father of Cuba.’
Grito de Lares—
1868—Puerto Rico. This “scream” was orchestrated by Betances in New York, Belvis in Paris, and Brickman in the U.S. Two to three hundred coffee plantation owners met to plan Puerto Rico’s independence from Spain. They were betrayed. Lacking support from the people, they were easily subdued. Seventy-nine died in prison and seven were executed. One result was that the men became martyrs to the cause. It also led many to believe that Puerto Rico was not ready for independence. This idea was further supported by Juan Luis Rivera, a Cuban army general who went to Puerto Rico in 1897 to see if Puerto Rico was ready to support a revolution. His consensus was they were not.
America had designs on its southern neighbors for much of the nineteenth century. Jefferson saw them as Spanish daggers, the South saw them as potential slave states (slavery was abolished in Spain in 1870). Nothing really came of it until William Randolph Hearst went to New York, bought a newspaper,
, and began a circulation war with his competitor, Joseph Pulitzer. Taking on the cause of the Cuban revolutionaries, he and his battalion of ‘literary mercenaries,’ the Yellow Journalists, began an all out effort to rally support for a war. Americans were also quite concerned over their investments involving sugar. In 1898 when the
was sunk, either accidentally or deliberately, the U.S. went to war with Spain. The “Splendid Little War,” or “Hearst’s Little War” was over quickly, cost few lives to the U.S., and reunited a nation that had not been cohesive since the Civil War. Spain had lost its entire empire. Spanish influence declined, relegating her to the position of a defeated mother. This marked the beginning of U.S. intervention in the islands. Cuba was granted independence under U.S. supervision. Puerto Rico became a possession of the U.S.
—1902. This enabled the U.S. to have control in Cuban affairs. Among the provisions listed the U.S. could intervene to maintain Cuban independence, would not allow for treaties that would enable other countries to lodge military bases there, and the allocation of rental land for a U.S. naval base.
For the next 57 years U.S. presence in Cuba was paramount. Unfortunately the U.S. had the tendency to turn its head to atrocities committed by Cuban leaders if they favored U.S. interests. Cubans were subjected to outrageous inhumanities by Gerardo “Machine Gun” Machado and Fulgencio Batista. Economically, Cuba was in ‘the take off stages’, politically, Cuba was in turmoil. Batista began alienating the middle class, especially when he attacked their dissenting children, i.e. students. By backing Batista, the U.S. was severely alienating a nation that was striving for the 20th century Latin American ideal of nationalism. It was not until well into Batista’s administration that the U.S. began backing Fidel Castro.
Once in power, Castro immensely improved the literacy rate on the island, improved health facilities, and provided better housing for the poor. Castro’s economic policies did not fare well. He stressed industry, therefore agriculture dropped off causing food rationing. In the work place the workers are not motivated. Low pay, lack of merit pay, and lack of advancement cause many to fall short of quotas set by the government. Cuba still relies heavily on one crop, sugar. Cuba still relies heavily on another nation—Russia. Castro had gained much support by espousing the utopian ideals of José Mart’. Once in power, he did away with Mart’’s ideals as well as the Constitution.
For a better understanding of Mart’’s recommendations for Cuba, his essay entitled
must be read by the educator. In it Mart’ stressed the importance of not being absorbed by another nation (in his time, the U.S.), of knowing the different elements that make up each people, and of creating a government that met the needs of the people of a particular nation, i.e. not just following another country’s model.
—1900-1917. The provisions in this act included that U.S. military control was to end, Puerto Rico would use the monetary system of the U.S., Puerto Ricans did not have to pay federal taxes, Puerto Ricans were not U.S. citizens, and the governor was to be appointed by the President and Congress but there would be a two-chamber legislature.
Downs vs. Biddell
—Puerto Rican reaction to Foraker Act. Puerto Rico was not happy with the lack of citizenship declaring that they had no rights. This case questioned the constitutionality of the act. The decision stated that the U.S. constitution did not automatically cover U.S. possessions.
Jones Act 1917
—Advocated by Mu¤oz Rivera, it granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, election of legislators, introduced the draft system, issued a Bill of Rights, and granted male suffrage. The governor would still be selected in Washington, D.C.
Balzac vs. Porto Rico 1920
(Spelling of island was temporarily changed by the U.S.). This reaction to the Jones Act requested the same rights as Hawaii and Alaska. They were not given.
The right to elect their own governor was granted in 1947. Mu¤oz Mar’n, son of Luis Mu¤oz Rivera, was the first elected governor in 1948. Three distinct ideologies on Puerto Rico’s status emerged in the 20th century—Independence, Commonwealth, and Statehood. In plebiscites on the island, the Puerto Ricans have chosen to maintain commonwealth status.
1940’s—Planned Industrial Progress. This was the turning point in Puerto Rico’s economy. The project protected U.S. markets, gave tax exemptions to industries, and gave Puerto Ricans jobs. The results were more jobs, better sanitation in the rural areas, a rising middle class, a rising role of women, and added money to the economy. On the downside, when the exemptions ran out many suitcase industries left.
Cuban Immigration to the U.S.
Once Castro took power he eliminated any dissenters by execution or exile. Many came to the U.S. unhappy under a socialist dictatorship they chose to settle primarily in the Miami area. Human rights violations were rampant. Rights of expression, free press, democracy, and initiative were some of the many taken away by the new regime.
Disillusioned with Castro’s economic reform, many of the upper and middle class left at the onset of his control. Their lands were expropriated by the government. Choosing not to participate in the socialist as opposed to capitalist system, they headed for the states. The lower class citizenry have left due to economic hardships in Cuba. When Castro came to power the island’s economy was comparable with West Germany’s; now the economy is on a par with the Eastern Soviet Bloc countries. Even now Cubans risk the hazards around Guantanamo Base in hopes of getting in and then out to the United States.
Puerto Rican Migration to the U.S.
Due to increased medical care and sanitary precautions, the population of Puerto Rico has increased drastically. Puerto Rico in 1898 had a very high birth and death rate. U.S. technology has improved Puerto Rico’s death rate so much that in 1950 it was lower than that on the mainland (Fitzpatrick, p. 13). The island ranks 26th in population with relationship to the U.S. With increased population shortages have arisen in employment and housing.
Over half the island is mountainous, thus preventing agricultural expansion. For farm workers seasonal work causes economic hardships. The per capita income in 1939-40 was $121 at 1964 prices (Fitzpatrick, p. 14). In 1986 the U.S. per capita income was three times that of Puerto Rico. The evacuation of many industries after Operation Bootstrap expired left many factory workers without jobs. In 1980, 70% of the population received food stamps.
It has been noted that the majority of migrants were better educated than those that remained on the mainland. This caused a brain drain. In 1980, 50% of the 16-19 year olds were not in school. In the 1980’s, the number of Puerto Ricans returning to the island has outnumbered those leaving. In the years 1980-84, 21,000 more returned than left. The influx of better educated both technically and academically, can only add to increased productivity on the island.
By the end of World War II, all the elements of a large mass migration were present: pressure from the island, availability of employment on the mainland, relatives on the mainland, freedom to move, and availability of cheap transportation (Fitzpatrick, p. 14). Many Puerto Ricans settled in New York upon arriving from the island. As with most immigrant groups, the first generation found it difficult to assimilate into the American culture. Prejudice and job protection greeted them. Unlike immigrants, they were migrants. Having U.S. citizenship, they could travel back and forth. The mainland did not necessarily become their home. Old customs and ways did not readily disappear.
As the migrants moved away from Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New York, the assimilation began. Many second and third generation Puerto Ricans speak only English and do not adhere to native customs. Such holidays as Three Kings’ Day are not celebrated in the home.
Writers and Their Times
aim—To have students become familiar with four significant native writers and how they related in historical perspective.
The ‘Father of the Cuban Nation’ was born in Havana in 1853. Throughout his short lifetime he was imprisoned thrice in Cuba for revolutionary activity (1869, 1870, 1879), deported to Spain twice (1871, 1879), and actively pursued Cuban independence in many countries, including the U.S. Ironically, his programs that Castro neglected to put into practice were an impetus in Castro’s rise to power. Under Reagan’s administration, Radio Mart’ was aired from Miami. Castro banned the station.
As well as being a political activist, Mart’ was a noted writer and poet. Many of his later works reflected his reactions to the nationalistic movements he was participating in. His works
The Spanish Republic and the Cuban Revolution
(1873) typify his early revolutionary ideals. Originally smitten with the U.S., in 1880 he wrote, “I find myself at last in a vast country where everyone appears to be master of himself. . .” (Abel, p. 68). Seven years later he would sever ties with the American ideal due to the Haymarket Incident. Chicago had been a center for workers advocating an 8-hour work day. Anarchists joined in stirring up radical ideology. When one striker was killed, the anarchist called for a mass meeting at Haymarket Square. Police tried to break up the meeting. Someone threw a bomb at them killing seven. Seven anarchists were arrested, four were put to death. The workers movement lost ground after this incident.
His affinity for the working man had taken another turn in 1884 when Mart’ severed ties with Cuban revolutionaries Gomez and Macao. He feared they were losing track of the revolutionary ideals of helping native Cubans and replacing the cause with personal gain. In 1895 the middle class, frustrated over their tax burden, rose up and began to back the revolutionaries. Mart’ felt compelled to return to Cuba in order to join the actual fighting. Gomez ordered him to remain in a precarious military position—the rear guard. José Mart’ was killed on May 19, 1895 never realizing his dream of an independent Cuba.
Lesson plan #2 will give examples of two Mart’ works. One deals with his views on racism, another will depict his obsession with duty.
Miguel Barnet met Esteban Montejo in 1963. After listening to this 105 year old man’s tales, he felt compelled to write his story. The result was the book entitled
The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave
. The book chronicles Esteban’s life through slavery, escape, freedom, revolution, ultimately to his disillusionment with Cuban society.
As other writers writing in the first years of the Cuban Revolution, Barnet managed to capture one of the forgotten heroes of Cuban history and put his extraordinary life on paper. He incorporated rites, celebrations, conditions, foods, and the emotions of the time. This text is easily understandable. If it cannot be read in its entirety by the students, excerpts should certainly be used in class. Especially informative are the excerpts that describe Esteban’s life in the barracoons, i.e. slave quarters, life as a fugitive living in a cave, and the description of festivities surrounding San Juan Day. See Lesson Plan #1.
Memoirs of Bernardo Vega
, edited by Cesar Andreu Iglesias, is an excellent portrayal of a Puerto Rican migrant. It chronicles Vega’s life as a cigar maker trying to adapt to an alien lifestyle. Woven into his day to day existence are accounts of Betances, Mart’, and Mu¤oz Rivera. Life was not easy for him, but he managed to survey and become very active in the plight of Puerto Rican migrants.
Bernardo Vega (1885-1965) was very attached to his homeland. He was always longing to return. His Communistic views are evident. Poor financial circumstances tend to do this to many in hopes it would better their own positions. Putting his beliefs aside, this book tells of the generation that paved the way for future Puerto Ricans.
The excerpts chosen in Lesson Plan #3 describe the work day at a New York cigar factory and cigar makers involvement in the Antillean independence movement. Contrary to misconceptions, the factories were a center of learning and intellectual activities. A tradition, carried from the islands of having a “reader” read to the workers all day, was carried into the states. While the men dutifully rolled cigars, the reader would present novels that traversed a variety of styles. Zola, Verne, Darwin, Dostoyevsky, accompanied the men daily. The men’s reactions and the historical background of the tradition are concisely yet entertainingly covered.
The cigar workers were very involved in the Antillean quest for independence. Their importance was not lost on leaders such as Mart’ and Gomez. To the former, the workers willingly gave up one day’s pay for the movement. Clandestinely and overtly, the cigar makers in America gave impetus to the Antillean quest for independence.
Ferré was born to a wealthy Ponce family. Her father, Luis Ferré, was a former pro-statehood governor of Puerto Rico. She began pursuing a writing career when she attended graduate school at the University of Puerto Rico. Presently living in Washington, D.C., she has written poems, children’s stories, essays, and critiques, as well as entertaining and poignant short stories including “When Women Love Men” and “The Youngest Doll.” A recently published book entitled
Sweet Diamond Dust
contains the novel of the same name and three short stories, “The Gift,” “Isolda’s Mirror,” and “Captain Candelario’s Last Stand,” all of which could be applied to classroom instruction.
Lesson Plan #4 utilizes “The Youngest Doll” for a variety of reasons. Two main themes permeate the short story. The first deals with the changing economics of Puerto Rico, i.e. the absorption of the upper classes into the middle class as well as the avariciously motivated rise of the lower classes. The second theme deals with the role of women in Puerto Rican society.
The story mainly revolves around an aristocratic aunt and her youngest niece and their submissive reaction to economic and social changes. The aunt becomes a virtual recluse after becoming debilitated by a prawn that enters her leg. She whiles away the years making dolls. The niece marries her aunt’s doctor’s son. He too is a doctor. Ironically, the doctor could have cured the aunt years before but did not do so in order to pay for his son’s education. Upon marriage the niece leaves the household with a doll meticulously made for her by the aunt.
Typical in the Puerto Rican culture is the superior authority of the male. He expects to exercise authority in the family, make decisions without consulting his wife, and expects to be obeyed when he gives commands (Fitzpatrick, p. 80). In “The Youngest Doll,” the niece is transplanted into a new home where her husband uses her as an ornament to attract customers. She is expected to sit with his patients who are paying outrageous fees just for the privilege of the aristocratic wife’s company. The niece dutifully and submissively accepts her role.
Rosario Ferré ends her story with a reactionary retaliatory twist.
Ever one to make money, the doctor looks for the porcelain doll in order to sell its parts. The niece responds that the doll had been made of honey and was carried away by ants. Her husband searches for remnants but could not find any. Further adding to his consternation is the fact that his wife is not aging. In order to determine how this could be, while she is asleep he sneaks in to examine her “. . .Then the doll (a reference to his youthful wife) lifted her eyelids and out of the empty sockets of her eyes came the frenzied antennae of all those prawns.” (Ferré, last line)