viernes, 30 de julio de 2021

We had never seen such people before: Puerto Rican literature and the writing of the other (segunda parte)


Puerto Rico had been a colony of the Spanish Empire since 1493. The sense of a local literature and a creole specificity is older, but during the 19th century there was, in spite of censorship and political persecution, an emergent literature written in Spanish, nurtured by cultural institutions established in the last third of the century and by a number of periodicals and literary journals that had networks of contributors in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Chile and México, as well as connections with publishing houses, journals and newspapers in the United States. New York, for example, was a major publishing center for Spanish language books, and the literary events of the city were known and reviewed in Puerto Rican literary journals.

The construction of a national or regional identity was a complex issue. ‘Pureza de sangre’, institutionalized racism, was an infamous practice. Slavery was abolished as late as 1873. Many authors did not write or speak from a “we” that included peoples of color, although the best writers, the more aware and cultivated people, were advocates for the abolition of slavery and for women´s rights.

In the early twentieth century the complexities of national identity and the factors of gender, race and class were present in the literature written by black working class writers and by women, socialists and labor agitators like Tomás Carrión Maduro and Luisa Capetillo, but they hardly entered the canonic corpus of writers studied at the university and the schools. I guess the same is true of American literary studies,

Black slavery is one of the threads that connects cultural spheres between the Caribbean and the United States. Derek Walcott in the poem Omeros, follows the thread from the Caribbean to a Georgia plantation. The Harlem Renaissance was inspired by Caribbean intellectuals like Marcus Garvey and the Puerto Rican Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

But back to Osuna, who is buried with his wife, in the neighboring town of Orangeville. He was obviously an intelligent young man and was offered a scholarship to study in the United States in the year 1901. Due to his naiveté and his youth, he sharply experienced the sensation of being an alien. 

His trip to the United States was inserted in the educational policies of the United States government toward the population of the island. The first decades were marked by a strong emphasis on radical and swift transculturation (la americanización) and the need to train native teachers who would be fluent American English speakers. Osuna was not prepared to even envision the atmosphere of his destined school, Carlisle. As some of you may know, I am referring to the Carlisle Indian School. Carlisle was established in 1879 on a former military base. (Other Puerto Ricans, were sent to the Booker T. Washington The Tuskegee Negro Normal Institiute at Tuskegee, Alabama, which seems to have followed similar pedagogical goals.)

Decades later, Osuna still remembered his culture shock. About his reaction Pablo Navarro Rivera wrote:

Juan José Osuna arrived at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School (CIIS) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania at six o'clock on the morning of May 2, 1901. He was fifteen years old, stood four feet six inches in height, and weighed just 80 pounds. Osuna, who would become a noted Puerto Rican educator, wrote of his arrival at Carlisle: “We looked at the windows of the buildings, and very peculiar-looking faces peered out at us. We had never seen such people before. The buildings seemed full of them. Behold, we had arrived at the Carlisle Indian School! The United States of America, our new rulers, thought that the people of Puerto Rico were Indians; hence they should be sent to an Indian school, and Carlisle happened to be the nearest.

Of course Osuna was “seeing and feeling” from the false consciousness of his own racism and prejudices, the despicable “pureza de sangre” heritage, but nevertheless his displacement was the result of a trial and error policy. About sixty other Puerto Ricans were also subjected to the experiment at Carlisle, which closed in 1918. Carlisle was a trade school and its stated objective was the radical transculturation of children from first nations that had been secluded in reservations. Its founder Richard Pratt surely saw himself as a liberal, enlightened educator when he wrote: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

From Carlisle, Osuna was sent to Orangeville, near Bloomsburg, as an apprentice to the house of a person named Mira Welsh. The Welsh family is an old local family, according to the book Historical and Biographical Annals of Columbia and Montour Counties. In this environment he learned English and seems to have developed a passion for this region and its history as well.

Osuna returned to Puerto Rico where he was a Dean at the University. In 1923 he wrote his dissertation. In it he he denounced the absurdity of imperial educational policies that could be described by the Carlisle mission statement. “Kill the Puerto Rican to save the Puerto Rican.” And the truth is that these policies were defeated in practice while continuing to create havoc and confusion for decades to come, sometimes as comically absurd as the  decisions documented by Osuna in his dissertation.

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