Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part II: Borinqueneers)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment's bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D'Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Painting depiction of the U.S. 65th Infantry Regiment’s bayonet charge against a Chinese division during the Korean War, by Dominic D’Andrea, 1992. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense)

The illustration pictures the (all Puerto Rican) 65th Infantry Regiment in action. In 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the fabled “Borinqueneers” in recognition of their military service in Korea (the word Borinquen derives from the ancient Taíno name for the island).

In The Docile Puerto Rican and Other Essays 1953-1971, René Marqués once argued:

We are docile. If we were not, Puerto Rico would have obtained its national sovereignty in the 19th century…. Puerto Ricans can be antisocial, defiant, non-conformist occasionally and even heroic as individuals in some cases, but we are certainly docile as a people.[1]

History belies such a categorical judgment by one of Puerto Rico’s greatest playwrights. From the first Taíno insurrection by Agueybana el Bravo (the Brave) in 1511; to the repulsion of repeated British and Danish invasions under the Spanish colony; to the slave rebellions of the 19th century; to the legendary insurrection against Spanish rule in 1865 known as the “Grito de Lares”; to the Puerto Rican participation in the Cuban Wars of Independence in 1895; in all conflicts Puerto Ricans have demonstrated the same fighting spirit that animated the Borinqueneers during the Korean War. (more…)

Puerto Rico: Dance Under the Storm (Part 1)

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“El Velorio” – ‘The Wake’ – by Puerto Rican impressionist artist Francisco Oller (1893).

Don’t anybody tell me anything bad about Puerto Rico because of its financial difficulties. I will be compelled to break out my voodoo dolls, and with my magic pins dipped in pig’s blood, condemn your life to a miserable Calvary of arthritic pain.

I have had occasion in this blog to write about my native country (Cuba) and about the land I inhabit (the Ancient Kingdom of New Mexico). What I have not done is write extensively about my real country—the place where I grew up and to which my heart—as that of all true Puerto Ricans—always returns. Cuba is a memory and a hope; Arizona is breath of life; Puerto Rico is home.

A stranger never forgets the land that sheltered him when in distress. I arrived to Puerto Rico at the age of seven with my immediate family in 1961. Three years later my father, who was director of installations for ITT Caribbean, was requested by his employers to supervise the installation of 26 telephone plants in South Vietnam for the US Navy. My mother, my sister María Elena and I remained behind on street 24 of the Santa Rosa urbanization in Bayamón. (more…)

Myths and the Empire

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“Lincoln Speaks to Freedmen on the Steps of the Capital at Richmond,” oil on canvas, by Gus Nall, 1963. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Traditionally myths are considered stories about the gods. But more accurately, myths are stories from the gods. Perhaps it is more comfortable to consider them, according to the less beautiful terminology of our times, stories from the unconscious. In Jungian terms, myths are archetypal manifestations that take the form of narratives.

Ritual is the enactment of a myth (this is Joseph Campbell’s definition). Ritual performance brings myths into our reality, and according to Black Elk, spread their sacred power among the tribe, thus making the world “greener and happier.”

An angel can turn into a devil before our eyes: Lucifer becomes Satan. The reverse can also be true: Joan of Arc, burned as a witch, becomes saint. A myth can be perceived as containing a hero (George Armstrong Custer) engaged in mortal struggle with an antagonist (Sitting Bull), and a moral that legitimizes Custer as representing the forces of good and Sitting Bull as an evil avatar. But then times change, our hopes and fears transform, and reason—ever a servant to our formulations—re-casts Sitting Bull as a patriot warrior and Custer as a fool. (more…)

Imperial Decline

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“Keying Up” – The Court Jester, oil on canvas, by William Merritt Chase, 1875. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Tom Engelhardt is an uncommonly keen observer of the imperial globe. His blog, TomDispatch.com, points critically at what mainstream media ignore or condone. The blog functions as an “antidote” to how the news typically is reported. He’s been at it since the beginning of the global war on terror. Before that, he wrote insightfully on US war culture in The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation (Basic Books, 1995). Now he sees signs of the beginning of the end of US empire.

Engelhardt sees the decline of American imperial power reflected in the words of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign theme: “Make America Great Again!” The word “again” is revealing. Rhetoric makes and reflects political culture.

In the 1950s, US wealth and power were “too self-evident for presidents to cite, hail, or praise.” Their political vocabulary was devoid of superlatives such as “greatest,” “exceptional,” and “indispensible.” After Vietnam, though, things went the way of Rambo. (more…)

Death of Sitting Bull

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Sitting Bull. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these days of primaries and tawdry rhetoric by presidential candidates, it would be good to evoke the memory of the great orator and medicine man of the Lakota Sioux.

This is how Arthur Kopit, in his play Indians, painted the portrait of Sitting Bull:

I am here by the will of the Great Spirits, and by their will I am a chief. My heart is red and sweet, and I know it is sweet, for whatever I pass near tries to touch me with its tongue, as the bear tastes honey and the green leaves seek the sky. If the Great Spirits have chosen anyone to be leader of their country, know that it is not the Great Father, it is myself.

As we have chronicled in our book Hunt the Devil (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015), Sitting Bull’s fiery rhetoric, the Plains Indians victory at Little Big Horn, and the Ghost Dance Movement of the late 19th century turned Sitting Bull into the devil we seek to destroy in every war—the evil leader of whichever people we target as our enemy. The death of Sitting Bull would be repeated, at the dawn of the 21st century, in the termination of an Islamic spiritual leader who had inspired — just like Sitting Bull — heinous crimes against the United States.[i] (more…)

U.S. Trounces Islamic State

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Credit: Library of Congress

The headline caught my attention: “Islamic State Getting Trounced in Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds, Survey Finds.”

The news story, written by Joby Warwick, appeared online on April 12, 2016 in The Washington Post. Warwick reports on national security and the Middle East.

In this story, Warwick features a new opinion poll that shows the Islamic State “is seeing a steep slide in the support among young Arab men and women it most wants to attract.”   The “survey suggests” that “overwhelming majorities”—“nearly 80%”—strongly oppose the Islamic State. That’s up from 60% a year ago.

More than half of the young Arabs surveyed ranked the Islamic State as the number one problem in the Middle East, and three-quarters predicted it would ultimately fail to establish an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria. “The survey found” that even those who do sign up with the Islamic State are motivated by economic hardships and unemployment, not by religious fervor. Religion is a rationalization, not a motive. Respondents also “tended to rank stability over democracy as a coveted virtue for an Arab state.” (more…)

The Ugly American

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Donald Trump caricature. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

He is ugly, loud and obnoxious. He makes a fetish of youth and wealth (the American Dream), a Blonde Beast with blow-dried, fake-colored hair. He trades in the base coinage of freedom and democracy; but his freedom is only slavery to his profitable schemes, and democracy means only unswerving affirmations of US imperial policy.

Donald Trump is the Ugly American that US Americans never see. We export him abroad to conduct enterprises that produce our wealth and leisure. But the rest of the world knows him well; for the rest of the world, Donald Trump is the face of America—the vile viceroy of its enterprises and nefarious purposes. (more…)

Curving History

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Image UGC 12158 of a galaxy, taken by the Hubble Telescope, 20 December 2010. (Credit: NASA)

The contemporary world is accustomed to the language of progress, a linear sense of ongoing change, a process of betterment that moves upward and onward. It presumes that what went before was primitive, or at least less advanced, than what followed. We advance step by step toward the future and eventual perfection.

Progress—as the commonsense discourse of development (of upward, onward, linear change from ancient primitiveness through advancement to future perfection)—clusters with terms such as making headway, forging ahead, forward-looking, evolution, growth, maturation, expansion, improvement, efficiency, and enrichment. Thus, no lesser light than Benjamin Franklin is widely credited with saying, “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”

The language of progress inevitably extends to politics, economics, and technology. As a function of language, consistent with Kenneth Burke’s theory of symbolic action, “progress” seeks its own terministic perfection to the point of overemphasizing profit, individualism, and power by underemphasizing society, community, and cooperation. (more…)

Language and Empire

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Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, 2nd century AD, from Rome Thermae Decianae (?), Palazzo Nuovo, Capitoline Museums. (Credit: Carole Raddato)

Whether one denies, embraces, or laments American imperialism, there is a motive for empire that typically goes unnoticed—the propensity of language for expansion and dominion. I don’t mean simply the globalization of English as the language of enterprise. I mean there is an underlying characteristic of language as a medium of thought and motivation that Kenneth Burke calls the principle of perfection.

The language we use to make sense of the world—to articulate a guiding perspective on reality—has its own dynamic and directionality. It prompts us to track down and round out the implications of its preferred terminology, to actualize its full potential to assign meaning and impose order on the world. (more…)

Sunset

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President Reagan’s last day in office, saluting as he boards the helicopter at the U.S. Capitol. (Credit: White House Photographic Office)

The second set of memories is darker, and more personal. I met José Rodriguez in high school, where he was my first theater teacher and drama coach. He became mentor, guide and friend—Ophelia’s ideal of a gentleman and scholar. He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London in order to pursue a career as a professional actor. In New York he played the great roles of Spanish drama in René Buch’s Spanish Repertory Theatre, including Don Juan Tenorio in Zorrilla’s play, and Segismundo in Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream.

José left New York to found the bilingual La compañía de teatro de Alburquerque in New Mexico. He invited me to work at his theater, where we performed his adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quijote (he played Quijote, I played Sancho Panza). It was to be his last performance. Soon after he left his theater company behind to study for the priesthood at a Catholic seminary. After his ordination he served as parish priest in Abiquiu, Northern New Mexico. He was diagnosed with AIDS, left the active priesthood, and spent his last days at his mother’s house in Puerto Rico, offering mass for his neighbors in his garage. He was dead at 50.

José was only one of an entire generation of American artists—friends, colleagues, companions—who succumbed to the AIDS virus in the eighties and nineties. We are a lesser people today because they perished then.

These are my memories of the Reagan era. I never cursed the president who is so often blamed for the government’s lack of action during the plague years. Reagan was only one of many, among the US dynasty of clown politicians, who ignored the demise of so many of their fellow Americans. But I remain unmoved by his legacy, and unaffected by its passing.

OG

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Illustration 5 for Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote“ by Gustave Doré, 1863. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)