Image: The first Board of Directors of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture visits Governor Luis Muñoz-Marín at the Governor’s Mansion. From left to right: José Buitrago, Arturo Morales-Carrión, Enrique Laguerre, Teodoro Vidal, Eugenio Fernández-Méndez, Luis Muñoz-Marín, Salvador Tió and José Trías-Monge.
On June 30, 1955 a majority of the Puerto Rico Legislature voted for the enabling act for the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, a public corporation dedicated to the study, preservation, diffusion, and enrichment of our national culture. The bill, drafted at Governor Luis Muñoz-Marín’s initiative, had been filed in the House of Representatives by the president of that body, Ernesto Ramos-Antonini, Esq. The bill was presented and defended by Representative Jorge Font-Saldaña.
This new cultural entity was established for compelling historical and sociological reasons. There was a need in Puerto Rico to counteract decades of ignorance and neglect with regard to the preservation and promotion of our cultural values in all orders, including the educational order. There was a need to counteract decades of harmful influences, which at times were openly contradictory to our cultural values, with an effort to promote those values. There was an urgent need to struggle against a psychological conditioning which had become deeply rooted in our colonial society, and which led many Puerto Ricans to systematically diminish anything autochthonous or anything that seemed autochthonous, while disproportionately valuing everything that was foreign, or that seemed foreign.
In view of these circumstances, it was only natural that the creation of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture initially faced staunch opposition in certain ideological quarters. The bill provoked one of the most interesting debates ever in the Legislature, and was finally approved with all of the minority representatives voting against it while being later approved by the Governor.
The controversy created by the new institution was widely echoed in the press, and in the words of some of the opposition, the institution was said to be provincial, chauvinistic, and narrowly nationalistic. The opposition argued that, with the creation of the Institute, excessive importance was being granted to our insignificant autochthonous cultural heritage, to the detriment of the broad and rich heritage of Greek and Roman civilization brought to Puerto Rico in its Hispanic version by the Mother Country and later enriched with the contributions made by North American culture. An artificial confrontation was thus created between Puerto Ricanism and Westernism, and some who defended the latter tendency even denied the existence of a specifically Puerto Rican Culture.
Another source of opposition to the establishment of the Institute of Culture was the political sector that since 1898, when Puerto Rico was occupied by the United States, had been promoting the cultural Americanization of the country as a preparatory phase for the annexation of Puerto Rico as a State of the American Union.
From the beginning, we defined national culture as a product of the integration of the respective cultures of the Taíno indigenous people that inhabited the island at the time of the Discovery, the Spanish who conquered and colonized the island, and the black Africans who since the early decades of the 16th century were incorporated in our population, a process that has been taking place in Puerto Rico for over four and a half centuries.
We also clearly set forth that the concept of national culture embraces the most simple and popular folkloric expressions to the most refined and sophisticated manifestations of culture.
Another two principles, in this case principles of action, guided the Institute of Culture from its origins: the general or national nature of its activities, which should reach all of the island, and not be circumscribed to the Capital or the Metropolitan Area, and its complete autonomy with regard to any partisan political criterion or intervention, due to the strictly cultural nature of the institution.
The results of the effort exerted by the Institute have been rewarding. The most important result has been the recognition afforded by the general population, beyond any differences, to our initiatives, shown in their collaboration with our activities and the joy taken in recognizing what constitutes Puerto Rican culture and its value. This attitude of our people is demonstrated by attendance at exhibitions, lectures, concerts, recitals, theatrical and ballet performances, film and documentary screenings, fairs, and other activities organized by the Institute, as well as their support for our historic restoration program and their cooperation with our historic commemoration program. The attitude of our people is also reflected in the stimulus provided by the Institute’s efforts to our historical researchers, our writers and musicians, our sculptors and graphic artists, our actors and dancers.
All of our work, and the activities that have resulted from this work, has contributed decisively to consolidating a public awareness that had not existed before. No one is ashamed anymore to talk about Puerto Rican culture, rather people are proud to do so. From being unacknowledged, I am speaking in general terms, the culture has been “discovered,” it is appreciated and enjoyed, not only with confidence but with pride. For the first time in our history, being Puerto Rican has become synonymous with being excellent. This is demonstrated by the emphasis given in the media to the “Puerto Ricanness” of our industrial and commercial products.
The popularity now enjoyed by things that are Puerto Rican is beneficial and encouraging, but may become dangerous if the media comes to disseminate the mistaken notion that our culture consists of eating hush-puppies (almojábanas) or that culinary and folkloric expressions are equivalent to preserving Puerto Rican culture. There is a danger that this erroneous concept will become generalized, because, in any nation, elements such has these may be preserved and may survive, while the supreme values are denaturalized or perish.
In speaking about the culture that Puerto Rico possesses as a nation, we should keep in mind deeper and more transcendental values.
In spite of the millenarian heritage we have inherited form the Taíno people, from Africa, and above all, from immortal Spain, the culture of Puerto Rico is a young culture. Yet, it is a vital culture, finding expression in all orders of creative activity, as borne out by our current literature, our theater, our music, our graphic arts, and our thorough historical, anthropological, and folkloric research.
But culture is a lot more that the sum of all of these things. Just as the culture of a people is not constituted only by the richness of its folklore, it is not solely constituted by its intellectual and artistic creations. Culture is above all a concept and a way of life, a spiritual state that defines the profile of a people and a nationality.
A people are constituted, in essence, by their intellectual and moral values. Puerto Rico is constituted on the basis of certain virtues, solidly grounded in humanism and Christianity, that distinguish our people from others, and which represent our most authentic contribution to universal culture.
Among the values that characterize us as our people is our deep sense of humanitarianism, expressed in the national habit of compassion for the less fortunate, a deeply rooted conviction of human equality, manifested in our racial mixing and exemplary social coexistence. There is a constant tendency towards justice, the basis for our love of democracy and freedom. We have a vocation for peace which has made our people one of the most civilized in the world; and our devotion to culture is grounded in the centuries-old Puerto Rican interest in schooling and education. Last, but not least, is our tradition of simplicity, which enables us to recognize and value spontaneously all that is good, noble, and great in other peoples.
It is these social values that we have mentioned, among many others, that constitute the foundation of our national culture. Our language, our customs and traditions, our art and our folklore are solidly erected on this foundation, a foundation that reflects the contributions of geography and commonly shared history, as well as the intermarriage of races.
It is this constellation of values that constitutes Puerto Rican culture. There is a hierarchy within these values according to the degree of excellence of these values. Those of lesser rank should not displace the higher values, yet they should not be disdained or neglected.
A national culture is a work created by Nature, Art, and History, simultaneously and reciprocally, through the centuries. A national culture, therefore, cannot be improvised. It can be destroyed, however, if in relying on its great vitality, we forget its need for love, care, and nurture, and in many cases, its need of a firm and energetic defense.
We have said that Puerto Rican culture is vital and full of energy, and the culture has given many examples of this. But it is also true that the culture has been exposed, and continues to be exposed to powerful and tenacious influences that have affected it in the past and continue to affect it in the present, and that may cause it to deteriorate or even destroy it in the future. These influences, besides being damaging, are unnecessary and superfluous. They are not the natural and spontaneous influences that occur in the vast intercommunication among peoples and produce and disseminate great intellectual, artistic and social well-being. These influences are the foreign fruit, which if we consume, we will assimilate and transform into our own way of being.
Puerto Rican culture is a possession that belongs to all Puerto Ricans, and those who are not Puerto Rican who live among us. It is the duty of all individuals and institutions of the country to defend it, to support it, and above all, to know it.
Those who have the greatest and deepest knowledge of their homeland will love it best, and will therefore serve it best.
Taken from Alegría, R.E. El Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña 1955-1973: 18 años contribuyendo a fortalecer nuestra conciencia nacional. San Juan, P.R.: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, 1978.