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La Vida en La Colonia: Oscar Lewis, the culture of poverty, and the struggle for the meaning of the Puerto Rican nation.

"The data we have on the [Rios] family and other families can only be understood in the light of Puerto Rican history and it seems to me that it is an unusually sad history, a history of isolation and abandonment, a history with few glorious moments."


OSCAR LEWIS AND LA VIDA DO NOT HOLD A PLACE OF HONOR IN PUERTO RICAN SCHOLARSHIP. Lewis's 1966 ethnography of a family of prostitutes from the notorious slum of La Perla in San Juan, Puerto Rico became a New York Times bestseller and won the National Book Award for non-fiction, but it also provoked strong reactions against it, in 1966 and afterwards. There is more to the story, however. La Vida sparked a debate amongst Puerto Rican intellectuals about the nature of Puerto Rican national identity, the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, and the meaning of Puerto Rican history. Puerto Rican autonomist leaders criticized La Vida for its stunted interpretation of Puerto Rican history and because they feared the book would perpetuate negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans. Nationalist intellectuals, however, lauded La Vida. Drawing upon ideas from Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, and Fidel Castro, Puerto Rican nationalists and Lewis used La Vida to document what they saw as the degradation of Puerto Rican national culture caused by American imperialism in the Caribbean.

Building upon years of studies in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and India, Lewis developed a theory that some of the desperately poor in capitalist societies around the world shared a common culture that transcended national boundaries. The culture manifested in family structure and relationships, psychology and personality, and in the relationship between the poor and the larger communities in which they lived. He called this the culture (or sometimes the subculture) of poverty. People living in the culture of poverty were not inferior, and this was not necessarily a negative culture, although Lewis did believe that once it came into being it became self-perpetuating and made it difficult for the poor to escape from poverty. Marxism strongly influenced Lewis; his work was, in part, an attempt at humanizing those whom Marx and others had dismissed as a despicable and reactionary "lumpenproletariat."

Lewis defined the culture of poverty in several lists of traits, which were not consistent. People living in a culture of poverty were disconnected from the larger societies in which they lived. They were materially poor, working in low-wage jobs and suffering from chronic unemployment and underemployment. They owned little and eschewed banks in favor of informal usurious credit arrangements and pawnshops. They distrusted the government, hated the police, and were uninvolved in politics and social organizations. The culture of poverty also was defined by the "slum community," a world inhabited by marginal urban dwellers and poor rural folk moving into the city. The slums had an "esprit de corps" demonstrated by the gregarious nature of personal relationships, by the pride that the residents held for their communities and by the presence of organizations like youth gangs. The slums, however, remained fundamentally disorganized, lacking, according to Lewis, any functional organizing structures beyond the extended family.

The family organization of the culture of poverty was radically different from the middle class. Childhood was less a specially cherished and protected stage of life. Children were subject to frequent physical punishment in authoritarian households. They became sexually active at an early age. Marriage was usually consensual instead of legal and formal. Although the culture was matrifocal, there was a pervasive belief in male superiority. Men frequently beat their wives or abandoned them. Women adopted a martyr complex in response to male machismo.

Finally, the culture of poverty instilled a unique and destructive psychology and set of attitudes in the poor. They saw themselves as personally unworthy and marginalized, dependent upon others. They were fatalistic about the world and did not plan for the future. They had little knowledge of history. There were high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, and mental illness. The very poor were not class conscious, although they had a profound sense of status consciousness. They were provincial and did not connect their struggles with others like themselves elsewhere.

Lewis first introduced the concept of a culture of poverty in 1959 in Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty and developed it further in The Children of Sanchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. Children of Sanchez was a hit among academics and the public and established Lewis as one of the eminent intellectuals in the 1960s War on Poverty. As he turned from Mexico to Puerto Rico, Lewis sought to demonstrate that specific national conditions produced variations on the culture of poverty. Lewis claimed that the Puerto Rican poor differed from the poor from other regions for historical reasons. He saw Puerto Rico as having a failed nationalism, and Puerto Ricans as having a flawed historical consciousness. Comparing Puerto Rico with Mexico, Lewis argued "Puerto Ric[ans] as a people were more broken by the Conquest and the colonial period ... somehow this has left a distinctive mark on the family and personal lives of many of its people, especially the poorest segments who as usual, have suffered the most." (Lewis to Munoz Lee, May 24, 1965) Colonialism had produced a different kind of poverty in Puerto Rico.

Lewis came to Puerto Rico in a particularly heated period and had to choose sides in the nationalist debate. Although he ultimately sided with the nationalists, he also had substantial communication with the autonomista PPD. Before La Vida debuted, representatives of the PPD were in contact with Lewis, hoping to steer him towards a generous representation of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. Joseph Montserrat, director of the Migration Division of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an agency in New York City that helped Puerto Rican migrants adjust to life in the city and waged campaigns to improve the public image of Puerto Ricans, sent a copy of "Toward a Balance Sheet of Puerto Rican Migration" to Lewis. Lewis wrote to Montserrat that, while he admired the achievements made by the Commonwealth since 1940, "this has not reached down to many of the slum families who seem to have been bypassed by the industrial progress of Puerto Rico." La Vida was "not going to be a pretty picture but I am certain that it is a thoroughly accurate one. Because of my identification and love for Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, I am deeply disturbed by my own findings as I suspect you will be. (Lewis to Montserrat, October 29, 1963. Lewis Papers, Box 58)

Lewis wrote to Luis Munoz Marin, acknowledging that the book "runs the risk of offending Puerto Ricans who have dedicated their lives to eliminating poverty." But Lewis felt that much more needed to be done and that his work would serve as an antidote to a "Rousseauan tendency" amongst anti-poverty authors to "play up the courage, dignity, and capacity for leadership of the very poor, without sufficient realization of the terribly destructive consequences of extreme poverty." Munoz Marin wrote Lewis that he would read the book with "interest and sympathy." A planned review by Munoz Marin of the book in Time never appeared. (Lewis to Munoz Marin, January 7, 1966; Munoz Marin to Lewis, January 17, 1966; Dave Scherman to Jean Ennis, June 23, 1966. Lewis Papers, Box 58)

Muna Munoz Lee, Luis Munoz Marin's daughter, worked as a translator on Lewis's project. She and Lewis engaged in a spirited debate in letters about the nature of Puerto Rican identity in the year preceding the publication of La Vida. Lewis tested out his theories about the connections between Puerto Rico's history and the culture of poverty with Munoz Lee. He began by comparing the history of the Spanish conquest in Mexico and Puerto Rico. The indigenous civilizations of Mexico had achieved a higher level of civilization and fought against the conquest more intensely. Modern Mexicans knew this history: Cuahtemoc remained a national martyr even amongst the poorest Mexicans, and Mexicans understood and celebrated their Indian heritage.

Puerto Ricans did not share this "sense of a great past, a sense of historical continuity" that Mexicans had. Lewis wondered how many Puerto Ricans even "knew about their Indian heritage." According to Lewis, for most of the Puerto Ricans he had studied, their "history begins and ends with Munoz Marin--and only a few recall Munoz Rivera." Mexican history had produced "fighters and revolutionaries" who had waged wars that were "bloody and prolonged and heroic." Puerto Rico's legendary figures had a "less heroic, less dramatic stature" and had struggled, not for independence, but for "just a bit more autonomy for Puerto Rico."

Munoz Lee corrected Lewis's historical interpretation. Like Americans, Puerto Ricans were the descendants of conquerors and slaves, and not of the American Indians. "To attribute any deficiency in our personalities to lack of knowledge of our Indian background is equivalent to interpreting the personalities of New Yorkers on the basis of their ignorance of their 'Indian background.'" The question of the African heritage of Puerto Ricans was germane, she acknowledged. "The treatment of both groups [Indians and Africans] is extremely significant to our history and, no doubt--but just how?--to our personality." Munoz Lee also objected to Lewis's characterization of the political shifts of the last years of the Spanish imperial system in Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans had obtained official recognition as a Spanish province and representation in the Spanish court. "To call this a 'bit more autonomy' is like saying Hawaii and Alaska 'wrested a bit more autonomy from the U.S.' when they were made States of the Union," she wrote. Finally, Lewis's commentary on Puerto Rican family organization was ludicrous, wrote Munoz Lee: "[I] don't really understand how the connections between having been an abandoned colony of Spain and having such a high incidence of maternal indifference and hostility in at least one group of our population can be worked out in detail."

Lewis brushed aside Munoz Lee's objections. Even if Puerto Ricans were not meaningfully descended from Indians, they still, "by comparison to Mexico...have less of a sense of historic continuity, their knowledge of history is more truncated and shallower." He cited a history of Puerto Rican slavery as proof that Puerto Ricans were gradualists rather than revolutionaries: "Even slavery was very mild. emancipation was easy and without violence and the transition period peaceful and gradual. Were it not for the few nationalists we might conclude that gradualism was genetic to Puerto Ricans!" Lewis inquired "what Puerto Rican Negroes were taught about their past, about Negro civilization in Africa," and boasted about how African-Americans were being taught about the glorious civilizations of Africa. Lewis did acknowledge that his knowledge of Puerto Rican history was perhaps not as good as it ought to be. "I must do a great deal more reading on these matters before I go into print."

In her final letter, Munoz Lee rejected Lewis's commentary on Puerto Rican slavery. The comparison with mainland America was misguided and demonstrated Lewis's ignorance of the ethnic makeup of Puerto Rico, as well as the different meanings of race in Puerto Rico. A majority of Puerto Ricans had African heritage. "A Puerto Rican would have spoken of what 'Puerto Ricans are taught about their Negro background.'" No Puerto Rican teaching the history of Africa would "think that only one group of the population would have an interest in it!" Munoz Lee rebuked Lewis sarcastically for claiming that Puerto Rico's history was not bloody enough:

It is a pity and a crying shame that in P.R. 'even slavery was very mild ... emancipation easy and without violence. The transition period peaceful and gradual.' We are bad masters, not being tyrannical enough; and bad slaves, never really (in spite of colonialism) having learned to be individually subservient enough. Think of all the fun we are missing now by not having made the institution of slavery all it ought to have been.

Finally, Munoz Lee quoted Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams in the years immediately preceding the American Revolution advocating gradual reform and the maintenance of ties with Britain. "The men seem to have been gradualists--obviously broken by colonialism" (Lewis to Munoz Lee, May 24, 1965 and June 1, 1965; Munoz Lee to Lewis, May 25, 1965 and June 4, 1965).

Although Munoz Lee had challenged many of his assumptions about the connection between Puerto Rico's history and the culture of poverty, Lewis repeated them without significant modification in La Vida. Lewis gave short shrift to the Puerto Rican struggle for autonomy from Spain, and to the real accomplishments of the Puerto Rican commonwealth. He remained wedded to his interpretation that the absence in Puerto Rico of a full-scale revolution such as the one in Mexico had led to a stunted Puerto Rican national identity. This limited and dismissive vision of Puerto Rican history would not serve Lewis well upon publication of the book. He had also alienated a potentially important ally. Munoz Marin remained the symbolic leader of Puerto Rico and the PPD; his handpicked successor, Roberto Sanchez Vilella, was in office during the research and publication of La Vida. The presence of Munoz Marin's daughter on Lewis's research team should have been a feather in his cap, but Lewis had alienated her.

Elena Padilla, a noted Puerto Rican anthropologist and associate of Muna Munoz Lee, who, in 1958, had published Up From Puerto Rico, an influential and sympathetic account of the experiences of Puerto Rican migrants in the mainland United States, reviewed La Vida in Political Science Quarterly. She gave Lewis some credit for focusing attention on the struggles of the poor to adapt to their material poverty in a world of increasing prosperity and for being a gifted writer and observer. But she questioned whether the Rios family was representative of Puerto Rico. Lewis argued that the Rios family was evidence of the shortcomings of Operation Bootstrap, but Padilla held that they were probably a product of the larger "whirlwind of social and economic changes" that modernization had brought to Puerto Rico. Most cuttingly, Padilla argued that La Vida was bad science and bad scholarship. Lewis had not given "analytical dimension" to the culture of poverty; he had not used a proper sampling procedure, and he had failed to place his subjects in proper historical context (Padilla 1967: 651-2). Juan Manuel Garcia-Passalacqua, PPD loyalist and aide to Sanchez, reviewed La Vida in the San Juan Star. "Gone with this book is the romantic, almost Quixotic image of the stoic, good, dignified, ascetic jibaro as the Puerto Rican prototype. With it emerges the existential, shocking image of a new hustling, unprincipled, foul-mouthed, and ruthless Puerto Rican." Garcia-Passalacqua challenged Lewis's claims that the PPD was trying to "cover up the sky with your hand." "One must question whether Mr. Lewis thinks his book presents even a substantial part of the Puerto Rican 'sky,' and must ask him to remove the 'hand' of the so-called 'culture of poverty' so that his reader can see all of it" (Garcia-Passalacqua November 16, 1966. Lewis Papers, Box 19).

Despite his contacts with the PPD, Lewis was firmly in the nationalist camp. Many of Lewis's closest Puerto Rican friends and confidants were independentistas, and they helped to shape his interpretation of Puerto Rican history. As he conducted his Puerto Rican research from 1962-1965, Lewis would claim to discover linkages between the Puerto Rican family, the psyche of the individual Puerto Rican and the colonial history of Puerto Rico. American colonialism had brought further challenges; Lewis cited Puerto Rican intellectuals who saw the English hybridization of the Spanish language as a "cultural breakdown" of "the single most important basis of Puerto Rican cultural identity." Words and phrases such as "el hamburger, el sandwich, lonchear [to eat lunch], el coat, la T-shirt, el jacket," and "toma la vida easy muchacha, [take life easy, girl]" signified the cultural weakness of Puerto Ricans. This was not isolated to the poor, but extended through all social groups (Rigdon 1988, 81-2, 241-5; Lewis 1966: xvii-xviii).

In a series of plays, essays, and short stories, Puerto Rican writer Rene Marques depicted his people as docile. Lewis took this idea from Marques and proposed it as a possible historical-cultural explanation for the failure of Puerto Rican nationalism. It helped to explain why there was no "mass revolutionary movement in Puerto Rican history." Autonomists like Munoz Marin had proposed a "geographical determinist explanation...Puerto Ricans never developed a successful revolutionary movement against Spain because Puerto Rico was so small and there was no place to hide." In his earlier works, Lewis maintained that the culture of poverty operated independently from race or ethnicity. On his first visit to Puerto Rico, however, Lewis began to perceive something different about Puerto Ricans. He wrote that they were "less intense, more friendly, and perhaps also more docile than Mexicans." Puerto Rican nationalist intellectuals told Lewis that the "Puerto Rican masses" lacked a "sense of history" and national identification (Lewis to Marques, May 17, 1966. Lewis Papers, Box 58; Lewis to Calixta Guiteras, February 7, 1963. Lewis Papers, Box 56).

The shadow of the Cuban Revolution hung over Lewis's Puerto Rico project. Lewis made a brief visit to Cuba in 1947 and returned after Castro's revolution. Lewis admired the role of the poor in the Cuban Revolution. "The Cuban regime--unlike Marx and Engels--did not write off the so-called lumpen proletariat as an inherently reactionary and anti-revolutionary force, but rather saw its revolutionary potential and tried to utilize it" (Lewis 1966: xlix-l). Lewis returned once more to Cuba in March 1968 and had a nine-hour talk with Fidel Castro. Castro had read and enjoyed some of Lewis's early work, and Lewis asserted that Castro understood Children of Sanchez "better than most of my own colleagues in anthropology" (Lewis to Maldonado-Denis, March 28, 1968. Lewis Papers Box 58).

In a letter to fellow materialist anthropologist Marvin Harris, Lewis described Castro's theories of revolution. Castro believed that successful revolutions depended on satisfactory objective and subjective conditions. Castro's subjective conditions for revolution included "revolutionary leadership, courage, and the readiness of people to give their lives in aggressive and violent attacks against the existing regime." Lewis was interested in how Castro's theories might apply to Puerto Rico, where "the environmental, technological, and economic conditions" (these were some of the "objective" conditions of a revolution) were similar during the Spanish era. Why then, Lewis asked Castro, did Cuba revolt while Puerto Rico did not? Castro responded that "it was simply historical accident that there were some courageous men in Cuba who decided to fight against Spain and that their struggle then established a tradition" (Lewis to Harris, September 12, 1969. Lewis Papers, Box 57). Castro's answer did not satisfy Lewis. He theorized that personality traits, such as those identified by his case studies of families, might determine the formation of revolutionary potential in individuals.

In La Vida, Lewis cited Frantz Fanon's belief that revolution in the colonial world would come from the desperately poor of the shantytowns. Karl Marx had described the lumpen proletariat as inherently counter-revolutionary, but for Fanon, they would be a revolutionary force par excellence. These urban revolutionaries, armed with empty bellies and isolated from old ties of "tribe and clan," would become the revolutionary spearhead to de-colonize the world. This was not the case, however, with Lewis's subjects in the Puerto Rico study, most of whom were politically conservative. Half were supporters of the Republican Statehood Party. The political consciousness of the poor, argued Lewis, was historically contingent. The lumpen proletariat was "not a leading source of rebellion or of revolutionary spirit" in "countries like Puerto Rico, in which the movement for independence has very little mass support," nor in Mexico, where independence had come long ago. Only in nations like Algeria, fighting for independence, did the lumpen proletariat become "a vital force" (Lewis 1966: l).

Fanon's psychological portraits of Algerians twisted by the effects of colonialism, poverty, and racism resembled Lewis's descriptions of the culture of poverty. Both showed people prone to sudden anger and violence, depression and malaise. According to Fanon, French colonial social scientists documented high rates of Algerian violence toward other Algerians, and deduced--inaccurately--that it proved that Algerians were innately violent, criminal, impulsive, and dim. Fanon saw it as proof of the psychological damage wrought by the twin forces of colonialism and poverty: "In the colonial context...the natives fight amongst themselves. They tend to use each other as a screen, and each hides from his neighbor the national enemy" (Fanon 1965: 240-50, 248).

Lewis hinted at the psychological damage that colonialism could wreak, but he did not tie it in a systematic way to his subjects. The only damage from colonialism that he described in La Vida was a Puerto Rican cultural weakness. Puerto Ricans had to build a legitimate national culture before they could break the culture of poverty amongst the poor. Puerto Rican nationalists went even further than Lewis in making La Vida into an anti-imperial tract, trumpeting Lewis's findings as proof of the debilitating effects of colonialism. Following Fanon, they argued that American colonialism had served to break the Puerto Rican sense of identity, creating within Puerto Ricans a feeling of inferiority. For Fanon, the discovery or invention of a glorious national past was critical in constructing a new de-colonized psyche, "the claim to a national culture in the past does not only rehabilitate that nation and serve as a justification for the hope of a future national culture. In the sphere of the psycho-affective equilibrium it is responsible for an important change in the native" (Fanon 1965: 170). Fanon argued that an essential operation of colonialism is the intellectual destruction of the worth of the pre-colonial culture. A program of de-colonization, argued Fanon, must be accompanied by the building up of a native culture.

One of Lewis's closest Puerto Rican confidants was Nilita Vientos Gaston, editor of Asomante, the leading Puerto Rican literary journal of the 1950s and 1960s. Ayala and Bernabe describe Vientos as a liberal, non-Marxist scholar, influenced by economic radicalism, but open to a variety of ideas. She complained that Puerto Rico was losing its soul to modernization, that the modern world measured progress solely in economic terms, and society became "a mere conglomerate of producers and consumers." (Ayala and Bernabe 2007: 129, 216-7) Vientos discussed La Vida in a series of panels held on Puerto Rican public television. Though Vientos defended the book, Lewis wished that she had done so more from the independentista position and connected it to the effects of colonialism. Vientos's response was instructive:

Things would have gone badly for me if I had focused on the book from the point of view of an independentista.... [Puerto Rico] is only one of the aspects to consider in the problem of poverty, because the United States, the wealthiest country in the world, confesses to having about 50 million impoverished people. I hope you are not preoccupied with the criticisms of the book...books like La Vida fog the so-called "Showcase of Democracy" or as it is called today, "The image of Puerto Rico," that most of the time is nothing more than a made up image to attract tourists and investors and does not correspond to the Puerto Rican truth.

Vientos saw La Vida's importance as revealing the limitations of Puerto Rican progress under PPD leadership. The PPD, in order to attract business investment and tourists, carefully cultivated an image of Puerto Rico as a modern, safe, progressive island. La Vida showed to its readers that there were still Puerto Ricans living at a level of poverty that was almost unimaginable. In one sense, Vientos agreed with Lewis: for her, the furor over his book was the product of the insecurity of Puerto Rican elites who felt that the book threatened the image of progress that they had worked to build. But she rebuked him for presuming that his book was evidence of the need for Puerto Rican independence. Poverty in Puerto Rico was emblematic of a deeper problem within American society, not of the colonial relationship per se. There was no point, she was showing Lewis, in arguing that Puerto Rican poverty was a colonial problem when there were tens of millions of other poor Americans who were not in a colonial situation (Lewis to Vientos, November 26, 1966; Vientos to Lewis, undated, Spanish original, author translated. Lewis Papers, Box 61).

A few years later, a Spanish translation of La Vida debuted, and Vientos published a forceful defense of the book. La Vida, she claimed, showed the bankruptcy of the autonomist project. It "bothers, more than anyone, the colonialist political leaders. It breaks the 'showcase of democracy.'" The PPD had avoided confronting the status question by accepting the American presence but demanding economic progress in exchange. La Vida demonstrated that this had failed the poorest Puerto Ricans. Vientos also pushed her criticism of the PPD leadership further. Samuel Quinones, the leader of the Puerto Rican Senate, called La Vida "an insult to the poor"; Vientos countered that it was actually an indictment of the PPD leadership who had disregarded the problems of the poor.

Existence at the margins had made the poor fearful, Vientos wrote. In the Puerto Rican context, this made them conservative. Their situation might be bad, but they feared that any change might make their situation even worse:

Like the society from which they come, they are conservative in their politics. They fear change, lack a sense of risk. They don't have a spirit of rebellion. They fear the political independence of Puerto Rico, not for lack of love of their country but because the United States, an omnipotent nation, offers security. It is not a question of loyalty, but of fear that the economic situation would get worse.

Vientos cited Lewis's research showing that Puerto Ricans knew more about American national heroes than their own. "Poor Puerto Ricans lack the archetypes, the spiritual roots to give them a sense of dignity. They don't identify with their nation's destiny" (Vientos 1970, 31-45; Spanish original, author translated).

Another nationalist, Cesar Andreu Iglesias, published a series of articles on La Vida in a nationalist newspaper, El Imparcial. Andreu was a Marxist labor organizer, author, and journalist. He was active in both the Puerto Rican nationalist movement and Communist Party, which he left in the early 1950s. In 1961, Andreu wrote a seminal essay on Pedro Albizu Campos, arguing that Albizu's refusal to live by the rules of a market society marked him not as a man of the past, but as a visionary (Ayala and Bernabe 2007: 139-41, 214-6). In 1956, he wrote a nationalist novel, Los derrotados (The Vanquished), which chronicled a fictitious Puerto Rican nationalist assault on an American military base. Andreu also edited the popular memoirs of New York Puerto Rican labor organizer and social activist, Bernardo Vega.

For Andreu, La Vida was proof of the degrading effects of colonialism on Puerto Ricans of all social classes. "Many of the attitudes, conflicts, and tragedies that march across the pages of his book are not exclusive to the lower class. They could well be generalized, not a few of them, and applied to Puerto Rico generally." Lewis only haltingly connected the mentality of the Rios family to Puerto Rican society writ large. The culture of poverty was still a class model that transcended national boundaries. Although there might be limited areas where the lifestyle of the poor said something about national culture, Lewis still primarily was concerned with the poor. Andreu went further, claiming that the book provided evidence of a colonial mindset, of people who had been twisted by colonial assaults on their culture and material well-being to the point where they did not understand their own situation or interests. He used Erasmo as an example: "One of the most despicable individuals in La Vida is Erasmo. By chance, he is the same individual who makes the most direct allusion to politics and to our colonial problem. Of course, he is an estadoista [supporter of statehood for Puerto Rico]." Erasmo's politics came from fear. He pointed to wars and dictatorships in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and claimed that "if Puerto Rico were given its independence, the same thing would happen.'"

Andreu argued, a la Fanon, that the most pernicious feature of colonialism was its ability to delegitimize the national culture of colonial subjects in their own minds. Beyond that, it convinced colonized peoples that their independence would be doomed to failure, that only under the control of a colonial power could they achieve any measure of stability and prosperity. This idea also manifested in the political leadership: "How does the political philosophy of this human wreck that is Erasmo differ from the political philosophy of our duly elected political leaders? Certainly there is a difference in degree. But that is the most that can be said."

Andreu cited Erasmo's political philosophy: "When someone asks me: which party do you support? I answer: 'That doesn't matter to anyone, because it doesn't matter who is in power, if I don't work, I don't eat.'" Andreu saw this as the "political philosophy par excellence in the colony.... The only valid position is for today's food. And if one is for this, one is for the people who have control over the food." Colonialism and impoverishment left people with dimmed horizons; the most that a person could hope for was a job at a marginal existence. This inevitably led to support for political leadership that represented the landowning and capitalist class. It also led to implicit support for colonialism.

Andreu deplored that, unlike Mexicans, Puerto Ricans did not know of their past, nor of their national heroes. "Our poor know something of George Washington and of Abraham Lincoln. But they know nothing of Ramon Power, of Betances, of Ruiz Belvis, of Baldorioty." Even if the poor had heard of these men, it was only "as the name of some street" because "colonial cowards reduce our national historic values to mere place-holders." The PPD was complicit in the colonial degradation of Puerto Rican culture; autonomism left the Puerto Rican people with nothing of their history and culture except names for streets (Andreu November 6, 1966, November 9, 1966, February 16, 1967. Spanish originals, author translated. Lewis Papers, Box 19).

Another prominent independentista, University of Puerto Rico historian Manuel Maldonado-Denis, also wrote about La Vida. Maldonado-Denis was a Marxist and anti-imperialist. Maldonado-Denis co-founded, along with Andreu and others, La Escalera, one of the most important Puerto Rican critical journals of the 1960s. Maldonado-Denis saw the destruction of Puerto Rican culture as an essential goal of American imperialism. He strove to build a Puerto Rican national identity centered on the vision of Albizu Campos, and saw the autonomist vision of Munoz Marin and the PPD as antithetical to a Puerto Rican cultural identity. Cultural hybridization was a sign of weakness.

Maldonado-Denis's 1968 book, Puerto Rico: una interpretacion historico y social (Puerto Rico: A Socio-Historic Interpretation), launched a nationalist reinterpretation of Puerto Rican history. Maldonado-Denis described the contemporary Puerto Rican situation bluntly: "Today our people continue to live under a colonial regime--though this regime attempts to disguise itself beneath the pompous title of 'Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.'" Maldonado-Denis dismissed PPD autonomism as "freedom with a long chain." Quoting Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, he positioned his book as the unity of theory and practice, the text that would educate the Puerto Rican people and spur them to revolution. Maldonado-Denis held court in the 1960s and 1970s as one of Puerto Rico's preeminent nationalist intellectuals. Later authors, however, criticized Maldonando-Denis for his belittlement of hybridized Nuyorican culture and his belief that non-revolutionary Puerto Ricans harbored a false consciousness (Ayala and Bernabe 2007; Maldonado-Denis 1972: 3, 6, 8-10, 248-50).

In El Mundo, Maldonado-Denis claimed that the culture of poverty "offered us the key to better understanding the prevailing confusion of the poorest strata of Puerto Rican society." He described La Vida as a chronicle of the deleterious economic and structural effects of American imperialism. Puerto Rico was "a colonial society whose social-economic structure has been destroyed by the imperial power." Like Vientos, Maldonado-Denis saw La Vida as a terrific antidote to the PPD's Showcase of Democracy propaganda. The numerous--yet hidden--poor, argued Maldonado-Denis, were proof of the shortcomings of Puerto Rican progress. By examining "the lowest social layers of Puerto Rican society," readers could see the failure of "all of the pious myths of the approach of public relations and of 'image building' that we have known during the past years." Following his Marxism, Maldonado-Denis labeled the Puerto Rican poor as holding a "false consciousness" that was "doubly profound: the traits of the Lumpen-Proletariat within a colonial context." This false consciousness manifested in their conservative politics. "Marx," concluded Maldonado-Denis, "did not lie when he showed the Lumpen-Proletariat as a potential ally of the propertied classes" (Maldonado-Denis April 1, 1967. Spanish original, author translated. Lewis Papers, Box 19).

It is tempting to dismiss the Puerto Rican nationalists' use of La Vida as political opportunism: those things that made the PPD look bad, and highlighted the problematic nature of autonomism within the colonial relationship made independence more attractive. There was also, however, a serious intellectual analysis going on amongst the nationalists that was congruent with their other works. The use of false consciousness to describe the outlook of the Puerto Rican poor, mirrored the analysis that MaldonadoDenis, for example, had used in his writings on Puerto Rican history. Lewis did not argue that the poor in the culture of poverty harbored a false consciousness, but it was not too much of a leap for others to make. If the poor held anti-revolutionary, even conservative sentiments, where else could a nationalist intellectual turn for explanation?

Nationalist intellectuals in Puerto Rico also held public forums. Vientos beseeched Lewis to come to Puerto Rico to discuss his book. She hosted two panels on her Puerto Rican public television show, Puntos de Vista (Points of View), with participants including Father Venard Kanfusch (Father Ponce from La Vida), social worker Rosa Celeste Marin, Maldonado-Denis, Puerto Rican Senate leader Samuel Quinones, and Joseph Montserrat. Lewis refused to share a forum with Quinones and Montserrat: "I find that their comments on La Vida have been shameful.... I am a scientist, not a politician, and I want to stay out of any of the political involvements surrounding the publication of my book." Vientos wrote Lewis to express disappointment: "After what happened in Mexico and the nature of LA VIDA, the reaction of the general public is true to form. Did you really believe that it was going to be different? In fact, compared with Mexico, it has been rather mild" (Lewis to Vientos, January 13, 1967, January 20, 1967; Vientos to Lewis, undated, Spanish original, author translated. Lewis Papers, Box 61).

The Dean of the College of Social Sciences at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, Robert Anderson, organized a campus forum on La Vida. He reported to Lewis that reaction to La Vida in the press "run the usual gamut from hysteria to soberness;" but that there "have been enough responsible comments on the book to permit a real discussion." Maldonado-Denis, also involved in the forum, assured Lewis, "we have invited serious and responsible people to participate, and I'm sure that the result will be fruitful." Lewis, however, refused to attend the forum, even though sympathetic readers hosted it. He replied, "It seems to me that I have said what I had to say in La Vida and that as far as I am concerned, the book speaks for itself." Lewis anticipated that Puerto Rican governmental officials had been stirred to "anxiety and hostility" and that they would "[make] a scapegoat of the author" instead of "facing up to the problems." "If some of this energy could be directed towards finding more adequate solutions for some of the misery uncovered by La Vida, I would feel that my work as a scientist and a writer had made some significant contribution" (Anderson to Lewis, December 5, 1966; Maldonado-Denis to Lewis, January 23, 1967, Spanish original, author translated; Lewis to Anderson, December 12, 1966. Lewis Papers, Box 55).

Four years after the publication of La Vida, an unusual exchange took place between Lewis and a Nuyorican woman, Olga Rosado, who wrote Lewis in disgust over La Vida. She claimed that Lewis had singled out Puerto Ricans and maligned them:

I have read your book ... and in my opinion this book shows nothing but disgust ... the points which you are trying to get across will just be hopeless with such filth.... I am a Puerto Rican myself and have been raised in the states.... You are not giving us a voice but only giving us a Label!" (Rosado to Lewis, July 24, 1970. Lewis Papers, Box 56)

Lewis responded by pointing to his studies of different nationalities and ethnicities. He had "no intention of singling out the Puerto Ricans." He suggested that Rosado get active:

If you don't like the style of life of the Puerto Ricans described in my book, La Vida, you should try to do something about changing the conditions which have produced them. Have you thought of joining the Young Lords or some other organization which is trying to help the Puerto Ricans? Simply closing your eyes and ears and saying "how disgusting" amounts to a rejection of your own people. Once you get over your initial shock I hope you can begin to show more sympathy for the people of La Vida than you did in your letter. (Lewis to Rosado, July 30, 1970. Lewis Papers, Box 56)

In addition to expressing his admiration for the Young Lords, Lewis also supported black militant movements within the United States. In the United States, where revolutionary change was unlikely, Lewis saw movements for ethnic or national solidarity as one way the culture of poverty could be broken. As he shifted from scholar to activist, however, Lewis could sometimes cross a line into paternalistically telling the oppressed of the world what form their liberation should take.

Roberto Rodriguez-Morazzini argues that in the late 1960s, Puerto Rican activists began to reject the assimilationist and moderate politics of earlier Puerto Ricans in New York City and to create political movements grounded in Puerto Rican identity that sought more radical changes in economics and politics (Rodriguez-Morazzini 1991: 96-116). Likewise, Michael Lapp argues that in the late 1960s the Puerto Rican government's assimilationist Migration Division lost influence in the Nuyorican community to groups that stressed Puerto Ricans' unique cultural identity (Lapp 1990: 294-332). Sociologist Nancy Ortiz, criticizing Lewis, points to the new politics of identity in the Puerto Rican community emerging in the late 1960s as proof that Lewis had missed the pulse of the Puerto Rican community in New York (Ortiz 1998: 273). There may be some truth to that, but the flip side of the coin is true as well: a new Puerto Rican identity was emerging in contradistinction to an older identity that stressed assimilation and moderation. Lewis almost certainly would have supported the new Puerto Rican nationalist politics. He was slow to understand the new rules of 1960s identity politics and liberation movements, however, and it was naive to think that an intellectual and an outsider would be taken seriously in his recommendation to Olga Rosado that she should engage in revolutionary national politics.

Lewis, Vientos, Andreu, and Maldonado-Denis all deplored the moderation of Puerto Rican and Nuyorican politics and agitated for a more activist, nationalist, and radical politics. In doing so, however, these nationalists sometimes risked alienating their own potential constituency. Vientos Gaston was sympathetic to the poor, as for the most part, was Lewis. Maldonado-Denis and Andreu, the Marxist nationalists, however, lambasted the poor for harboring a false consciousness that made them something less than proper Puerto Ricans. Their use of La Vida provides an early example of what Mariano Negron Portillo describes as the "cultural, nationalist discourses of exclusion" practiced by nationalist intellectuals in reaction to economic modernization. A political agenda that disparages the poor because of their supposedly transgressive nature and faulty patriotism is self-defeating in a nation with prevalent poverty (Portillo 1997: 39-56).

Why does this debate still matter? After all, the nationalist movement in Puerto Rico seems to be sliding into irrelevancy, with declining results in Puerto Rico's status referenda and shrinking representation in Puerto Rico's legislature. But while the stridency and radicalism of some of the nationalists of the 1960s might seem surprising today, the issues that were at stake to both the nationalists and the autonomists in the mid-1960s should be familiar to anyone who follows Puerto Rican politics: How will Puerto Rico preserve its unique cultural heritage? How will Puerto Rico deal with the extensive poverty that exists on the Island? What would statehood mean to Puerto Rico's national identity? What would independence bring? How should Puerto Rico balance its integration into the American economy with its own political and economic interests?

Ramon Grosfoguel argues that many Puerto Ricans understand, quite rationally, that independence from the United States would bring about enormous economic uncertainty, and have chosen instead a path of "subversive complicity" in their relationship with the United States (Grosfoguel 1997: 57-76). Some question the singular focus upon colonialism as the factor that shapes the Puerto Rican nation and people. Carlos Pabon even argues that the globalizing world is moving beyond the nation-state as the primary organizing entity of geopolitics and thus the status question has become a "nonsense dilemma" that serves only to justify the existence of politicians who would never solve it even if they could (Pabon 2007: 65-72). Others disagree. Christine Duffy Burnett holds that the status question remains central to Puerto Rican politics because American colonialism still determines the political reality of Puerto Rico. The debate about colonialism cannot end until colonialism ends (Burnett 2007: 73-83). Status referenda show increasing support for statehood, and some Puerto Rican intellectuals, such as Frances Negron Muntaner, urge statehood for Puerto Rico, not because it is a perfect solution, but because it is the best available and realistic option.

Grosfoguel, analyzing the history of the relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, argues that a new mode of colonialism may be emerging. As the world becomes "geoeconomic" instead of "geopolitical," the Cold War program of capitalist development of Puerto Rico, in part, for the purposes of international propaganda, fades, and as the military importance of Puerto Rico declines, many American policymakers see Puerto Rico increasingly as a burden rather than as an asset. Grosfoguel hints ominously that a "neocolonial" relationship could develop--a relationship that involves the withdrawal of American dollars without any resolution of Puerto Rico's status question, of colonialism without any benefits for the colonized (Grosfoguel 1997: 57-76). There are no guarantees. The cracks that Nilita Vientos Gaston saw in the Vitrina de Democracia may still widen into deeper fissures. The questions raised in the debates about the meaning of Puerto Rican nationhood and identity in the 1960s may still prove to be vital.


I visited New York City and the University of Illinois with money from the Bean Fellowship. I thank the funders for their generosity. Thanks to the staff at the University of Illinois archives and the staff at El Centro de Estudios Puertorriquenos at Hunter College, CUNY. Thanks to Mark Pittenger, Paul Shankman, Bob Ferry, Lee Chambers, and Ralph Mann, who read drafts of this work, and to Sherie Dike-Wilhelm and Sherri Jennings for editorial help.


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(1) Correspondence between Oscar Lewis and Muna Munoz Lee reprinted in (Rigdon 1988: 245-51); these letters are not available in Lewis's papers.


Steven Dike ( is a history instructor in the Honors program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is writing a book about anthropologist Oscar Lewis and the creation of Lewis's controversial book, La Vida: A Puerto Rican Family in the Culture of Poverty, New York and San Juan.
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Author:Dike, Steven
Publication:CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Mar 22, 2014
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