Commentary Magazine


The Study of Man: American Realities and Sociological Methods:
New York's Puerto Ricans

The writers in this department are generally social scientists, commenting and reporting upon the work of other social scientists on subjects of interest to the general reader. This month, however, the department is given over to two literary critics who, at the invitation of COMMENTARY’s editor, review two recent books by social scientists—one, on the long-range change in the American character, the other, on the adjustment of Puerto Rican migrants to America. Joseph Wood Krutch is Brander Matthews professor of dramatic literature at Columbia University, and the author of The Modern Temper and Samuel Johnson. He was for many years dramatic critic for the Nation. Nathan Glick, a frequent contributor to COMMENTARY, is the movie critic for the Progressive.

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Between them, the social scientists and the business market “researchers” have bred a cultural behemoth: the interminable questionnaire. Merely to read the hundred-odd, several-barreled queries posed to each victim of this study1 induces an overpowering fatigue. The idea seems to be that if you corner your subjects, formalize their responses, and limit yourself to the ascetic role of a calculating machine, you thereby attain a shorthand, shortcut knowledge which is somehow more authentic than the old-fashioned responses of the senses and the mind. This technique of pigeon-hole sociology, aside from its general cultural condescension and invasion of privacy, strikes me as particularly inappropriate to those Puerto Ricans in Harlem whom I have got to know in the course of a subsidiary kind of social work. They are the most open, hospitable, and unsuspicious people I have encountered in a city where these qualities have become increasingly rare. To subject them arbitrarily to this battery of questions is to take advantage of their easy availability.

I do not mean to impugn the motives of the authors. The study was financed by the Puerto Rican government and one of the major aims of the authors was to remove the human problem of the migrants from the realm of political scare-mongering and introduce into the discussion some cultural perspective and reliable fact. Against newspaper estimates running as high as 700,000, for example, they set the sober figure of 200,000 for the Puerto Rican population of New York. One also finds here a greater tact and modesty than, for example, in the “Yankee City” and “Jonesville” studies of W. Lloyd Warner and his associates. None of the questions, for one thing, was offensively personal. And although the authors erupt occasionally into such an occupational clumsiness as “There is no unilateral social hierarchy in Puerto Rico,” the prevailing style of their report is plain, direct, even at times sensitive. I remember, too, that C. Wright Mills some years ago expressed his professional as well as personal admiration for the pregnant, individualized, painfully accurate and loving descriptions of two Southern share-cropping families in James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. (In general, Mills’s writing has been among the most sophisticated and least academic in American sociology.) It is this sensitivity that prompts the authors to say in their preface: “We are aware that no study of this kind can capture the full meaning of the journey from Puerto Rico to New York City and of the splendors and miseries of the people who make it. Confronted with a subject as alive, deep, and varied as a people on the move, we have had to rely largely on the collective and somewhat distant experience which statistical research offers, catching it in bits and pieces which we then try to fit together. . . .”

A comparison of this statement with the text reveals sociology’s split personality: its yearning for the “real thing” and its reveling in statistical accumulations. Instead of careful portraits of individuals or descriptions of the behavior of informal street groups, which might at least hint at “splendors and miseries,” the authors spawn from their statistics a “composite” portrait. “The typical Puerto Rican migrant living in New York City’s Spanish Harlem or the lower Bronx is 24 years of age, has completed about six years of schooling, comes from an urban area on the island and had always lived in such an area. The chances are six to four that the migrant is white, seven to three that she is married. We say ‘she’ because it is six to four that the migrant is female. In the wage worker stratum, it is about even odds that the typical migrant worked as a semiskilled laborer.”

Neither in this abstract potpourri, nor in the scores of generalizations ventured, do I recognize any of the Puerto Ricans I met and talked to—the imperturbable, slightly quizzical, dignified old women, the harassed, patient housewives, the bold, snippy girls, the deceptively shy ones, and the gigglers, the wiseacre boys on the corner who were so impeccably courteous at home. Nor was I reminded of the tiny communal kitchens where females of three and sometimes four generations silently and indifferently went about their divided labors of washing clothes and children, preparing a meal, ironing, and breast-feeding the baby.

But even in their own terms, the authors are vulnerable. For example, they want to arrive at some statement about the “adaptation” of the Puerto Ricans in New York. By arranging confessions of “troubles” according to language proficiency and employment status, they conclude that the better the migrant’s English and his job, the better adapted he is. But isn’t it just as plausible that the opposite may be true? As he learns more English and rises in the job scale, the immigrant is more likely to take over the middle-class prejudices that dominate the New York environment, which means that he will be disinclined to expose his true feelings or troubles, especially when they hint at lack of success. Also as he becomes more ambitious, he is likely to become more frustrated, the ceiling for Puerto Rican expectations here being what it is. On the other hand, it is the poorer, less educated newcomer, not yet involved in the competition for status, who is uninhibited about admitting his troubles. For him, they are a natural, not an invidious condition. The danger of statistical sociology lies in the assumption that quantity illuminates quality; but there are ambiguities in numbers that are not commonly dreamt of.

A related danger is the tendency to consider the questionnaire as defining the entire universe of possible knowledge. On the evidence of the earlier interests of Mills and Senior, the reader might have been led to expect some clarification of the political context of New York Puerto Rican life. Yet despite the curious facts and rumors about the Puerto Rican mass base of Vito Marcantonio’s East Harlem machine, The Puerto Rican Journey is strangely silent on all aspects of Puerto Rican political behavior.

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The book does offer a partial illumination, however, on the effect of American mores on the Puerto Rican’s color consciousness. The authors divide their subjects into the categories of black, white, and intermediate, and watch for variations in the responses of these three color groups. My own experience in Puerto Rican Harlem would not have justified such a division, for I saw no signs of color discrimination among the Puerto Ricans themselves, and even the “Americanized” outsider accustomed to automatically registering color distinctions (though he might think he detested their social uses) soon stopped responding to color overtones in dealing with Puerto Ricans. On the island itself, as the authors point out, color carries little weight except among the tight group of “best” families which places a premium on pure Spanish derivation. Since the Puerto Rican community in New York is too new to have produced a significant moneyed elite, there would seem to be no internal pressure toward the establishment of color distinctions. Yet the study revealed an interesting variation in the responses of the three groups. (It should be remarked that the slightness of the variation, close to an average of 10 per cent, is largely disregarded by the authors; but its consistency does invite speculation.)

White Puerto Ricans, especially women, express a greater aversion to working with Negroes than do darker Puerto Ricans. In time, colored Puerto Ricans learn to dislike working with other Puerto Ricans, and the women among them become less likely to object to working with other Negroes, perhaps because they may be more privileged among American Negroes than among other Puerto Ricans. One of the ironies of the assimilation process for colored Puerto Ricans is that the more English they learn and use publicly, the more likely they are to lose the slight advantage their Spanish identity affords them over American Negroes in New York. The least secure group, according to the authors, is the intermediate one. The mainland, unlike the island, does not recognize shadings in pigmentation or feature-formation. It is likely, should this color standard take firm root among the migrants, that the community will ultimately be severed into those who assimilate into the white world and those who accept their place in the Negro world. In that event, the tragic figure will be the intermediately colored Puerto Rican unable to enter the white community and unwilling to identify himself with the Negro community.

Suggestive as these variations on the color theme are, they are hardly the definitive analysis that the authors, in their earnestness, imply. They do, however, by the very fact of their distance from commonplace experience, remind us of possible subjects for contemplation. I should say that the two elements most lacking in this study are the intimacy which would serve to check an obsession with statistics, and that free play of the mind which would lead beyond statistics to all the cultural possibilities of the situation. Our concern with assimilation, certainly, should include the possibility of assimilating into our own urban ways the slower pace of living, the everyday love of music, the unquenchable passion for outdoor and non-organized communal living, the absence of shame in poverty, which the Puerto Ricans brought with them to New York.

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Footnotes

1 The Puerto Rican Journey: New York's Newest Migrants. By C. Wright Mills, Clarence Senior, and Rose Kohn Goldsen. Harper. 238 pp. $3.

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