As a kid growing up in the deep campo of Vega Baja bordering Morovis, I read in marvel Ricardo Alegría’s newspaper articles on the Tainos and other tidbits of Puerto Rican culture. Long before telephone lines ever got to the isolated campo, waiting for these articles become something to do, as I fantasized that one day I would become an anthropologist. This was way before I would interview Professor Ricardo Alegría at the Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños for my doctoral thesis. That thesis would become Sponsored Identities: Cultural Politics in Puerto Rico (1997), a critical exposé of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the official cultural policy Alegría helped found. A product of the times, my book was informed by a renewed criticism on the cultural essentialisms that limited an assessment of more popular expressions of Puerto Ricaness, including the Puerto Rican diaspora’s Nuyorican culture, which was quickly becoming my own.
As we mourn the loss of this titan of Puerto Rican anthropology, it is worth recalling the historical conditions of the ‘50s and ‘60s and early 1970s that made Alegría’s work so powerful and necessary and him such an influence on generations of scholars, students, artists and activists. See, way before it was fashionable to openly love Puerto Rican culture in Puerto Rico, and politically acceptable to waive flags and even to play folk instruments and music, the island was enveloped in an aggressive U.S. assimilationist policy intended to Americanize Puerto Ricans, rip them of their language and of any pride or knowledge of their history and culture.
To be openly proud of being Puerto Rican was to be an “independentista” or “nacionalista” and to be ostracized and run the risk of not getting government jobs and contracts. My interviews with cultural activists associated with the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture showed that many of them had been victims of political profiling simply on account of their cultural work. One showed me his carpeta (FBI file) that described his “subversive” activities: playing Puerto Rican folk music at church. That he played the “cuatro,” a four-string guitar now recognized as a beloved national instrument, was noted as evidence. This is the obscure political context to which Alegría’s work became such a powerful rejoinder.
Working with the first locally elected governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Muñoz Marin, Alegría helped found the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP) in 1956, which he led for over eighteen years. From there he helped launch a revival of all things Puerto Rican through festivals, activities, museums and cultural centers celebrating Puerto Rican culture, especially the island’s Jibaro (peasant) culture and the Taino.
It would take decades before the ICP would fully venture into the island’s African legacy, though it featured in the renewed ICP appreciation for Bomba y Plena music and the Festivities of Loiza Aldea. Since, scholars have rightfully noted that Alegría’s cultural nationalist project was also part of a larger cooptation of nationalism that neutralized its most radical components, placing it at the service of the colonial commonwealth government. Others, myself included, exposed the essentialist views of Puerto Rican culture that became “officialized” through the many preservation and cultural projects promoted, and the elitism bred when some aspects and representations of Puerto Rican culture are considered more ‘authentic’ than others. But these critiques stand on ground that was paved through hard won struggles that need to be also be appreciated, especially in their greatest achievement: the generalized appreciation and popularization of Puerto Rican culture, a culture that had long been shamed and purposefully persecuted on the island
Today, this key achievement deserves to be remembered and cherished along with the lessons from Alegría’s life-long mission. We especially benefit from remembering the legacy of Ricardo Alegría as Puerto Rico continues to be enveloped in a neoliberal Pro-Statehood administration that consistently refers to Puerto Ricans as “Americans,” dislodging the progress Puerto Ricans have made in overcoming our shamed colonial past. His memory should make us recall how hard we had to fight for the right to be recognized as Puerto Rican irrespective of background and political persuasion, and whether we’re born on the island or not. In his memory, I hope we continue to be defiantly Puerto Rican, lovingly, openly and proudly.
Arlene Dávila, Ph.D. is a Professor of Anthropo- logy and American Studies at New York University. She is a cultural anthropologist interested in urban and ethnic studies, the political economy of culture and media and consumption studies. Her work focuses on Puerto Ricans in the eastern U.S., and Latinos nationwide. She is especially interested the politics of culture and representation as they play out in a variety of institutional settings as varied as museums and contemporary culture industries. Professor Dávila teaches courses on comparative ethnic studies, race and nation in the Americas, Latino/a popular culture, global ethnography and consumption studies. She is author of Sponsored Identities: Cultural Politics in Puerto Rico (Temple University), Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race (NYU Press), Latinos Inc: Marketing and the Making of a People (University of California Press), and Barrio Dreams: Puerto Ricans, Latinos and the Neoliberal City (University of California Press). Her new book, Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility across the Neoliberal Americas, is forthcoming from NYU Press next spring. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org