Puerto Rican postmodernists: please make us the 51st state

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Mar 29 15:30:26 MST 2001

[If poor Jim Blaut hadn't died last November, this article surely would
have killed him. It is from the latest Lingua Franca and reports on the
convergence between postmodernist ideology and advocating that Puerto Rico
become the USA's 51st state. Based on the reference below to an equation
made by some of these pomos between Puerto Rican nationalism and "genocide
in the Balkans", I strongly suspect that a subscriber to Mark's crashlist
might have been coming from that direction. Unfortunately, the article is
not on the www.linguafranca.com website but you can check the site for
information on how to get a copy of the magazine. Here is an excerpt.]




Juan Duchesne heard a female voice shout these words as he came to the
defense of his wife and colleague, Aurea Maria Sotomayor, in her darkened
classroom. A group of student strikers had disrupted the exam Sotomayor was
administering, pushing her students out the door and overturning all the
desks. They’d fixed Sotomayor in the spotlights of their video cameras,
with portable loudspeakers blaring. "Some twenty people were screaming
obscenities, slurs, and threats," Duchesne recalls by e-mail. ROMPE
HUELGA—strikebreaker—the students scrawled on her chalkboard. VENDE CULO!
You sold your ass.

It was May 5, 2000, and strikers were shutting down the University of
Puerto Rico’s central Rio Piedras campus to protest the U.S. Navy’s use of
the island of Vieques as a bombing range. Still, Sotomayor wasn’t the only
professor teaching during the strike. She’d even offered her striking
students a makeup exam. What’s more, like most Puerto Rican intellectuals,
Duchesne and Sotomayor oppose the navy’s presence in Vieques.

So why the student antipathy? For one thing, Duchesne and Sotomayor, both
professors in UPR’s Spanish department, are notorious for questioning the
concept of a distinctive Puerto Rican nation, a stance that often pits them
against professors and students of more nationalist, or puertorriquenista,
leanings. And not only that: Among Puerto Rican academics, they have
committed what may be the cardinal sin. They have suggested that Puerto
Rico—a U.S. territory since 1898 and home to nearly four million
Spanish-speaking, nonvoting citizens—should have its star as the union’s
fifty-first state. . .

LIKE MANY Puerto Rican intellectuals, the radical statehooders complain of
a growing disillusionment and fatigue with the island’s long deadlocked
status debate. Yes, Puerto Rico’s colonial problem must be solved. But must
the commonwealth’s political parties remain shackled to status positions,
which can lead them to overlook such pressing issues as San Juan’s
staggering crime problem? "It’s as if somebody had a heart problem and a
broken leg, and he said, Well, the only way in which I can fix my leg is to
deal with my heart problem," observes the UPR law professor Efrén Rivera
Ramos. Ramos is not a radical statehooder, but his words echo many
intellectuals’ disenchantment with status politics as usual.

In grafting a defense of statehood onto left-wing politics, radical
statehood attempts to break out of the traditional status debate by
subverting its categories. It’s a trick the statehooders learned from UPR’s
original mavericks, las postmodernistas (the epithet is often meant
pejoratively). This brand of postmodernism derives, to a significant
extent, from the work of the Marxist scholar José Luis Gonzalez, who
critiqued nationalist nostalgia for Puerto Rican cultural traditions and
folklore. (Among the island’s most frequently cited folkways are musical
rhythms like born ha and plena and staple dishes such as rice and beans.)
In his 1980 hook, El pais de cuatro pisos, Gonzalez claimed that this
concept of Puerto Rican national identity was socially constructed by
particular groups for particular purposes: Its core elements were
predicated on Puerto Rican social hierarchies and appealed most to the
middle class. (The book was published in the United States in 1993 as The
Four Storeyed Country and Other Essays.)

Building on the theories of Gonzalez and others, Duchesne and Sotomayor
helped found Postdata—the first of UPR’s postmodernist journals—in 1991.
The premiere issue, produced with a photocopy machine and paper clips,
included articles by Duchesne, Sotomayor, and others questioning the very
concept of a fixed Puerto Rican national identity. From its inception,
Postdata opened an intellectual chasm among Puerto Rican cultural theorists
that has not closed. Is there a Puerto Rican nation? And if so, is it bound
tightly together by the Spanish language and a Caribbean culture, or could
its elements be more diverse?

Like postmodernists elsewhere, the Postdata writers insisted on the
mutability and multiplicity o)f identities, as against any notion of a
unitary and fixed national character. Puerto Ricanness, the postmodernists
asserted, continually transforms and evolves, combining elements from the
United States, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. In his Puerto Rican Jam essay,
"Islands at the Crossroads," the radical statehooder Augustin Lao exults in
"the continuous transit of peoples, TV programs, icons, ideologies,
letters, newspapers, money, goods, festivals, dramas, conspiracies, and so
on," between Puerto Rico and the United States. Many puertorriqueñistas, by
contrast, fear that U.S.-dominated globalism threatens authentic Puerto
Rican culture—Spanish-speaking and Catholic, hospitable and fiercely proud
of its Olympic team, which would presumably be lost if statehood prevails.

After the debut of Postdata, the next landmark moment for the
postmodernists was a wildly controversial article by the UPR historian
Carlos Pabón in the first issue of Bordes, another postmodernist journal,
in 1995. The essay, "Dc Albizu a Madonna," was illustrated with an
inflammatory montage grafting the head of nationalist firebrand Albizu
Campus onto a picture of the seminude pop star draped in a Puerto Rican
flag—suggesting that militant Puerto Rican nationalism had gone mainstream,
taking a softer, cultural turn. In the article, Pabón-—who takes no status
position and says he abhors the whole debate—traced the mutation of
nationalism from an anticolonial albizuista version in the 1930s to its
present incarnation, which defines itself more against cultural
assimilation and statehood than against direct colonial subjugation. Pabón
called this newer incarnation "neo-nationalism," a term that has stuck.

Many on the pro-independence academic left found Pahón’s article insulting.
Felipe Pimentel, a professor of Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College who
calls himself an independentista but not a nationalist, remarks that the
postmodernistas conflate supporters of independence with nationalists,
freely attributing totalitarian impulses to both. Others echo the concern.
"I don’t see any need to sacralize the nation," says Juan Giusti. However,
he continues, postmodernists and radical statehooders all too frequently
assail a straw-man version of Puerto Rican nationalism. "I’ve heard
postmodern thinkers make the connection between Puerto Rican nationalism
and genocide in the Balkans he says. "I have big problems with that."

For radical statehooders, the challenge is to fashion a distinct, if
flexible, sense of island culture that neither invites nor excludes U.S.
influence. Unlike more traditional statehooders, some of whom are so
enamored of the United States that they are often mocked as piti yankis
(little Yankees), the radicals understand that the island is not culturally
suited for swift assimilation with the United States. But in Puerto Rican
Jam, the editors also suggest that be cause Puerto Rico’s pervasive but
vague cultural nationalism has not translated into widespread support for
independence, the notion of a strong connection between Puerto Ricanness
and any particular status option should be abandoned.

Whatever does define the Puerto Rican nation, radical statehooders stress
that nearly half of it (3.2 million votin,q Puerto Ricans) already lives
Stateside anyway. Puerto Rico, says Puerto Rican Jam co-editor Frances
Negrón Muntaner, has become "a cultural nation that has transcended its
immediate borders." Of the Stateside Puerto Ricans, she says: "They’re us!"

Louis Proyect
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