National Identity Politics in Puerto Rico

Artist garvin sierra takes on identity issues in “Que Maravilla 3d,” “how Marvelous!” Art by Garvin Sierra

Beyond the Binational Colonial State

By Juan Duchesne-Winter

I remember my high school times in San Juan in the late 60s. I had convinced my parents to let me switch from an elite English-dominant institution to the Spanish-dominant public school system, because I was sick of the socially suffocating milieu prevailing in that kind of Americanized private school. As soon as I entered my new public high school I met two excellent, stimulating teachers who were members of the pro-Independence party at the time. I joined a group of school friends that forged close ties with these two teachers. We were a mixed bunch. One of the independentista teachers had a strong working-class background, the other was typically middle class. The students in the group were equally mixed. Our relationship transcended the school environment. We saw and discussed Brazilian, Cuban and Italian films (like Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers), read novels by Sartre and Camus, began to read Fanon, and engaged in political conversations informed by the relatively enlightened Marxism of the internationalist anti-colonial left. We made a point of drinking only wine or foreign (non-American) beer. Our teachers drove non-American working-class cars (Fiat or Renault). We spurned baseball and instead played fútbol (soccer). We registered in French classes as soon as we entered the university, just to choose the first non-binational (i.e., non-colonial) referent available. Some of those gestures were ancillary, and even unconscious performances, the center of our friendship being the search for a commitment with the radical issues of the times, which had a distinctly international provenance. I remember that our group’s cosmopolitan penchant acted as a resistance strategy to the coloniality of Anglo-American culture’s hegemony in the island at the time. We actually embraced subversive cosmopolitanism to resist an oppressive American influence and decode the inherent subalternity of the tame, official Puerto Rican culture embedded in the binational colonial matrix. We had no anxiety about losing our identity; we did not care about any particular identity; we just desired to break away from the colonial binational matrix. We wanted to liberate ourselves from the aspect of subalternity encoded in this matrix (although we obviously didn’t state it in those terms). I soon decided to become a militant for the Independence struggle. Today I realize that theinaugural scene of my commitment to the Independence struggle was not an identity-seeking nationalist passion. It was an ethical response to subalternity and colonialism within a broad social and political scope. I believe that the actual possibilities of a radical-democratic alternative to the currently stalemated identity politics in Puerto Rico might be related to the untimeliness of this recollection.

Identity, in its cultural, collective sense, is an ever-present social convention, as I discovered in my college years. It is a web of multiple, symbolical connections that is ceaselessly reworked in any modern society by the plurality of its individuals, who by definition are collectively constituted actors in a social stage, and are necessarily linked to particular groups. Each identity is constantly redefined in relation to the more or less open set of other identities that surround it.

A social group accentuates or softens its perceived lines of definition inasmuch as it counts on other groups that provide a background or a direct contrast to its changing contours. The essence of identity is relational.

The need for a critique of identity politics is proportional to the relative dominance of identity issues on the political stage. If, as philosopher Hannah Arendt claimed, politics is the being together of those who are different, the emergence of identity as a crucial topos of difference in postmodern societies places it in the center of the political arena, for good or bad. Moreover, given that collective identities of all sorts (religious, sexual, racial, ethnic, social) can only share specific jurisdictions, they may tend to converge on the problem of national identity, which is inextricably bound to the political monopoly of the modern state.

This convergence on the national question is inevitable in a country like Puerto Rico, where the state form, given its particular colonial make up, has sustained an asymmetrical binational imaginary whereby the Puerto Rican subaltern nationality is embedded in an American dominant nationality. But the subaltern nationality is embedded as an alien entity, in a colonial matrix that reproduces its alienness. While American nationality is embodied by the imperial metropolis, it acts at a distance, both geographical and cultural, in contrast to the previous metropolis, which was only geographically distant, given the linguistic, cultural and racial continuum across which the difference between criollos and Spaniards was disseminated. The sharp Anglo/ Hispanic break opened a further degree of separation in Puerto Rico’s colonial makeup after the United States invaded in 1898 and took the Spanish master’s place. The United States acts thus as a telenation and amacronation within the binational imaginary sustained by the current state form in this Caribbean island. This binational imaginary acts like a paradoxically “protective” womb for Puerto Rican national identity given that, by reproducing Puerto Rican identity as an intractably alien subjectivity within American ethnocracy, it sustains the contrastive background upon which the Puerto Rican nation has defined its fundamental contours in the 20th century. Puerto Rican endemic anti-Americanism is a corollary of this logic. An essential factor of modern Puerto Rican nationality is its latent, suppressed, sometimes inverted and often manifest anti-Americanism, which has developed a symbiotic though paradoxical link with its American telenation or macronation.

However, the colonial cultural gap has been gradually bridged, not by hybridization (as it was under Spain), nor by assimilation, but by a convergence between island Puerto Ricans and U.S. Latino cultures in the mainland. At this point of the twenty-first century, Puerto Rico is not immersed in a passive process of Americanization (and, arguably, it never was), but it certainly is engaged in its active Latinoization. The Latino sphere has offered island Puerto Ricans a relatively non-conflictive entrance into the larger sphere of United States ethnocracy. The only significant exception is a small fraction of the top elites related to American business, among them, the denizens of the Guaynabo City enclave, who conscientiously pursue miscegenation-assimilation through mixed marriages with Anglo-Americans.

On the other hand, entering the Latino sphere amounts, in perspective, to taking the long road to Americanization. An eventual U.S. Latino nation would nevertheless be an-other nation, with the “aggravation,” for identity seekers, that it is much more difficult for traditional versions of Puerto Rican nationality to define their contours against a background Latino identity that hardly offers any contrast to prevailing aboriginal culture. In consequence, the very seamlessness of this process of Latinoization adds a further destabilizing factor to Puerto Rico’s binational imaginary. To define a Puerto Rican identity as against a Latino identity is much more problematic than doing it against the Anglo distant other, precisely because Latino assimilation is less conflictive. Identity politics needs identity conflict. Lack of viable identity anguishes the identity seekers.

Aside from sincere, profound convictions about the value of national identity, one important reason for the angst of identity seekers is that they embody an elite in need of the symbolic capital required for their effective political, representational power over the local subalterns, i.e., the popular sectors of the Puerto Rican population who simply act as who they are and go about fulfilling their daily tasks without minding whether they authentically represent the Puerto Rican people or not. The angst of the lettered white criollos has contributed a substantial ingredient to the binational colonial state: it has furnished the subtle ideological awnings of its long-standing hegemony.

The binational colonial state feeds on the existential crisis it breeds. This existential crisis is not a general condition of the Puerto Rican people but mostly an exclusive affair of the elite and of the counter-elites that have for generations supplied cadres and symbolic capital to that state, and to the anti-colonialist opposition that has indirectly contributed to its successive adjustments and updates. The outstanding expression of this existential crisis is the famous status problem, the perennially agitated debate on the seemingly unreachable collective decision as to the form of sovereignty to be finally opted by the Puerto Rican people: the Independent Nation State or Statehood within the U.S. Constitution. The first option is an inalienable right of every nation, upheld by the international community. The second option depends on a potential petition to the U.S. Congress, with remote chances of approval, given the hegemonic Anglo-dominant structure of American society. Puerto Rican statehood could spell the beginning of the nemesis for Anglo hegemony in the United States. As Mark Shell adverted in “Babel in America; or, The Politics of Language Diversity in the United States” (Critical Inquiry, vol. 20, no. 1), a Spanish-speaking State of the Union could demand that the Constitution be bilingual. Undertaking an official, juridically binding translation of the Constitution may be imagined as a destabilizing enterprise capable of unleashing a national debate of unforeseeable consequences for the prevailing American ethnocracy.

The status question is a collective symptom of Puerto Rican national identity, in fact, its salient defining aspect—and as such it has become a self-perpetuating political conundrum. Ironically, Puerto Ricans would loose an essential source of their national passion if the status issue were to be solved. They would depart from a collective debate that has emotionally bound this Caribbean imagined community, by being uttered, staged, reproduced, allegorized, or encrypted 24 hours a day in the airwaves, the literature, the press, cyberspace, or daily conversation spanning the island during most of its modern history. The majority of the people not belonging to the elite do not necessarily experience the status question as a source of existential anxiety, but they festively engage in it as one of the few available avenues for subaltern participation in political expression.

Positions on status articulate intra-class differences within the dominant elites. The binational colonial state (Estado Libre Asociado) is configured on the historical hegemony of the Partido Popular Democrático (PDP), which lay its foundations in the 1952 Constitution. The pro-statehood Partido Nuevo Progresista (PNP), has only rhetorically challenged this foundation, never managing to break the hegemony of the populares in spite of a number of electoral victories. The once significant pro-Independence movement has been decimated by a two main events. One is the massive repression unleashed by the United States and the local government during the middle quarters of the 20th century (1930-1975). The other is the massive cooptation by the cultural-nationalist strategy of the populares, which has dramatically depleted theindependentista constituency since 1976, leading to the now imminent liquidation of the only pro-Independence party remaining on the island.

The populares have actually managed to cannibalize the pro-Independence constituency by appropriating many nationalist issues under the banner of a sui generis brand of colonial nationalism, inherent to the aforementioned binational imaginary constitutive of the current state form. They have in fact created an ideologically efficient, U.S.-dependent, colonial nation-state that is able to agglutinate national identity concerns in a postmodern age in which banal identity politics manage to displace radical issues related to coloniality, subaltern agency, and social transformation. The global condition ofliquid modernity, as described by Zygmunt Bauman in Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi (Cambridge,UK: Polity Press, 2004, pp. 50-52), has laid bare the precariousness of identity, helping it mutate into a central ideological force of our times. In Puerto Rico, this liquid modernity has provided, as in many other places, a propitious brew for renewed anxiety. The mere spectacle and consumption of identity has acted as a hysterical substitute for concrete solidarity, real commitment, and lasting alliances in social relationships, all of which have been seriously eroded by neoliberal capitalism.

An interesting balance of this situation is that nationalism and anti-colonial politics are no longer synonyms in the case of Puerto Rico. Colonial nationalism has displaced anti-colonial nationalism. This might be good news. It opens the way for the possibility of a non-nationalist and not identity-based anti-colonial stance, which might include a demand for independence that transcends nationalist ideology.

Juan Duchesne-Winter
 is professor of literature and cultural studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author, among other books on Latin American literature and cultural studies, of Ciudadano Insano (Citizen Insane - 2000), Fugas incomunistas (2005), and Equilibrio encimita del infierno: Andres Caicedo (2007). After participating at an early age in pro-Independence activism during the 70s, Duchesne-Winter has joined other Puerto Rican intellectuals in the critique of nationalist identity politics.