Commentary Magazine


A Farewell to Munoz Marin

One needn't be in Puerto Rico very long to note the presence of Public Relations; the initials stand for both the island and the kind of soft sell that got me down there in the first place: a tropical paradise in which the hills are purple, the beaches yellow, and the races inter-. Here poverty and culture are referred to as Bootstrap and Serenity, and a sometime cellist by the name of Pablo Casals plays the well-paid role of the island's Commander Schweppes.

To be sure, not everything the admen tell us is a lie. Puerto Rico is a sunny, hilly island, some hundred miles long by thirty wide, and almost every bit of it is beautiful. The people are friendly, child-loving (I tend to judge nations by the way they treat their children), ingenious, and ingenuous. The island's problems are many, but not critical: first, because no matter how serious they are, nature is benevolent and life (at least at its basic level) goes on; and second because the island government does try to solve them in a humane fashion. Puerto Rico is less developed than Cuba used to be and more than Jamaica is, but it shares with them much that is specifically Caribbean: a mixture of races, languages, cultures, and economic levels, plus the fact that it is, per se, nothing. This means that history is absent, or that such history as is present is someone else's history, imposed on the island.

There are also cold, hard problems: a 14 per cent rate of unemployment, some scandalous urban blight, and, far more insidious, a new and hideous middle class created by relative prosperity—by that kind of prosperity that just manages to reach over the shoulders of the common man, and is ashamed of its origins, vulgar, racially conscious, and insecure.

What has been achieved in Puerto Rico is no small thing. I won't repeat the statistics—most laymen have no way of knowing what they mean, for lack of a context—but people are plainly better off than they were some twenty years ago when Luis Muñoz Marin (who has only just retired as Governor) first emerged as a leader. Nevertheless, this very improvement has created problems that no one knows how to solve, and no one ever thought would exist as problems.

Twenty years ago, all Puerto Ricans believed that education would solve their problems; they provided it and not much of it is very good. Where do you go from there? Today, there are houses and markets and industries and hotels. But for every problem solved by economic development, a dozen new ones arise.

The achievements of Puerto Rico are based on a special economic relationship to the United States, and are not necessarily sempiternal. They are bound to the general prosperity of the mother-country; but achievements, after all, bring on expectations, and can Puerto Rico satisfy these?

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The first hard fact that I noticed in Puerto Rico was that all the first-class minds in it could be (and frequently were) crowded into a middle-sized drawing room. One felt a sense of intellectual and cultural underdevelopment far more frequently than one ever felt economic underdevelopment. Specifically, one knew one was in the Province, and at a considerable remove from the Metropolis. This did not mean that there were not great reserves of intelligence. It meant, rather, that intelligence in Puerto Rico, as in many parts of Latin America, lives under special conditions: (a) the poverty of its context makes it seem greater than it actually is; (b) the structures into which it has to fit do not make many demands of it, and hence there is frequent atrophy; and (c) it is so necessary and so over-used that it is perfectly happy to make few demands on itself and to go on being half-used.

The University in which I worked as Assistant to the Chancellor was typical of these problems. It had 21,000 students and had to be staffed and administered. For various reasons involving the “status” of the island, this had to be accomplished largely with local resources. Thus the University was forced into continual compromise: there always had to be a better candidate than X for a vacant deanship: there rarely was.

The University was, next to the Governor's office, the great source of power on the island; hence it, too, was part of politics. The attention paid to political racketeering rather than serious work and independent study, the calculated irresponsibility of some, the petty ambitions within the orbit of a strong man (the Chancellor, Jaime Benitez) reflected, I am sure, a parallel situation around Muñoz. Similarly, the cultural level of the country, despite the Puerto Rican claims made for it, is neither more nor less than what you would expect from an island of three million people to whom no one in the world scene pays particular attention, that neither suffers nor prospers greatly. Like Darío in Nicaragua, an occasional rare figure rises above the surrounding mediocrity and that is that. Why should there be more?

To start with, the linguistic picture is complicated. Few Puerto Ricans even at the University actually command sufficient English, and in any discussion conducted in English, they are at an immediate disadvantage. But why should they speak English at all? American culture, as culture, has had almost no impact whatsoever on Puerto Rico. It is not our literature, our music, our art, our architecture, and certainly not our national ethos that has affected Puerto Rico, but simply the manifestations at second hand, at a considerable remove, of the artifacts of this culture, particularly in its economic and material aspects. These are then taken for the whole. The Puerto Rican intellectual (Muñoz definitely not excluded, though he should know better) likes to think of the United States as the Home of Vulgarity and Materialism, and of Puerto Rico as a sweet dwelling place of the spiritual values of Spanish society adapted to a tropical environment. This is myth-making.

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Here is the way Muñoz himself put the problem as long as ago as 1929:

. . . saving a culture, even an inferior one, from becoming the monkey of another, even a superior one, is a good in itself. And in the present case it is by no means certain that the heritage shared by Puerto Rico is to be unfavorably compared with the heritage to which the blind forces of production and exchange now seek to hook it up.

That states the case plainly enough. Unfortunately, Puerto Rico and all the other countries around the world (such as France) which so greatly fear “Americanization” overlook the simple truth that no such “Americanization” would be taking place if that complex of attitudes and techniques we call American culture were not in itself a very remarkable thing, if the cultures that it threatens were not intrinsically weak in the very areas in which they are threatened, and if “the people” did not feel it as a liberating force.

It is not those “blind forces of production and exchange” which are likely to change Puerto Rico or any other country, but something quite different: the fact that we Americans have long preached self-perfectionism and still believe in it, that we function outside tradition and hence feel that nothing is impossible, and that we are decades ahead of all other nations in the realistic appraisal of the extraordinary and constant revolution this century has been. We seem, therefore, very much the culture of the Present Tense.

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One of the cruellest tricks played on Puerto Rico in recent years has been the attempt to raise it to the status of the “showcase of the Americas.” It is a fine, an excellent place, but it is relevant only to itself—a fact Latin Americans are quick to recognize. This is because the Puerto Rico created by Muñoz Marin and his colleagues is special. More than special, it is unique, unique in our own history, and unique in the world today.

The problem was posed by Muñoz as far back as 1938, when he, the son of Puerto Rico's great leader for independence from Spain, began his campaign for power by declaring that “status was not an issue” and that what he wanted for his people, before any ideological consideration, was freedom from hunger, from poverty, and from the humiliation of helplessness.

It was a statement of genius, and at the same time, a statement that bore the seeds of disaster. While the economic and social problems of Puerto Rico were being solved—to the extent that this is possible in a tiny tropical island without natural resources—the status question could be kept in abeyance, but once these conditions had been largely eliminated, once the moratorium had passed, what would happen? The truth is that the status of Puerto Rico is an issue, and the question that Muñoz has always evaded is whether this “status” is a political or a cultural problem. I plump strongly for the latter, because though it matters only to a degree how Puerto Rico exists politically or economically, it matters absolutely and to all to know who they are, what language they should speak and what books they should read, how they drive their cars and how to use their leisure, what attitudes they take toward women, death, or their children. All these things are involved in the status question. They are not things one decides; they are certainly not things one can leave undecided.

Puerto Rico is a blend—a mixture or a hybrid. This is a fact which some are content to accept and many are not. Some parts of the middle class are more American than the Joneses; others feel this to be demeaning and want an impractical independence. The clear-cut versions of these positions are held by minorities. But in the middle, in the vast majority, everyone feels partly (and at different times) inclined one way or the other. (Muñoz prophetically foresaw this situation in the speech from which I have already quoted when he said that his people might be destined to become “neither Puerto Rican nor American, but merely puppets of a mongrel state of mind, susceptible to American thinking and proud of Latin thought, subservient to American living and worshipful of the ancestral way of life.”)

The ambiguity of the cultural situation has been exacerbated by the ambiguity of the institutional relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico. The basic political question—whether Puerto Rico is a “nation”—has remained so long undecided that each of these tendencies, to “Americanization” or to some form of Puerto Rican nationalism, has acquired a political outlet, parties devoted to one or the other position, which have substituted an infinity of half-truths, of the sort that always underlie the struggle for power, for the kind of intelligent thought that is required if Puerto Rican society is ever to arrive at a clear definition of itself.

The desperate irony involved in all this is that the status of Puerto Rico in no way depends on the islanders themselves: the political decision belongs to the U.S. Congress. It is this situation that is so galling to Puerto Rican nationalists, open or concealed; and it is also this situation which creates in Puerto Rico that mentality which other Latin Americans quite rightly call “colonial.” Unfortunately, however, no political decision can ever alter a culture, and it is Puerto Rican culture that creates the ambiguity about the island's status, just as it is its culture that may one day solve the status question.

For the time being, the argument is basically economic. There is no doubt whatever that Muñoz Marin is right in his belief that Puerto Rico would probably sink to the level of a Dominican Republic without natural resources if granted independence. But the argument for independence does not use economic reasoning. It is a matter of Faith and Morals. It rests on two points: some absurd pretentions to a specifically Puerto Rican culture (based on the Spanish language) and the historical necessity of national aspirations.

Muñoz himself has never been clear as to where he stands on this issue. He appears internally torn between the two alternatives of greater assimilation to the United States and independence. He started as an independentista; it is said that in his heart (or at least in his wife's, which counts for as much) he remains one. At the same time, he has always realized that the argument for independence rests on shaky ground. It is certainly arguable that in more than half-a-century of United States rule, just as the English language has made little headway, Spanish has lost no ground, so that Spanish civilization, to the degree that it ever existed in Puerto Rico, is hardly threatened. It could also be argued that Puerto Rican culture, around which the independentistas build such a structure, really is this specific blend of elements, and that to revive the Spanish colonial days with their accompanying half-hearted folklore, is to opt out of precisely that which makes Puerto Rico even moderately interesting: one of the few places where there has been some blending, psychological and cultural, of the Anglo-Saxon and the Latin worlds.

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It is around this basic compromise that Muñoz Marin has built his political life, and for all its defects it is hard to see how his version is not superior to any other proposed for Puerto Rico. And if Latin America despises Puerto Rico and Muñoz Marin for this, I find it to their shame, an ugly tribute to the deforming spirit of the Latins' new “nationalism,” and to their greater love of words than of deeds, of concepts than facts, of rhetoric than reality. For I think Puerto Rico, except for the historical accident by which, almost inattentively on both sides, it became an appendage of the United States without rights in the United States, and an economic “colony” without a corresponding cultural gain, is actually the kind of place most Latin Americans, given the chance, would want to live in: a place where things work, the economy progresses, where there is order, stability, freedom, tolerance, education, and dignity. And the greater part of this is due to Luis Muñoz Marin.

History will probably have a mixed verdict; the island was given a mixed beginning. It has made a virtue of its difficulties, but has not yet recognized that these difficulties are its ultimate virtue, have to be lived with, defined, accepted, and reflected in its political institutions as they are in its culture.

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