Academic journal article Centro Journal

La Vida En la Colonia: Oscar Lewis, the Culture of Poverty, and the Struggle for the Meaning of the Puerto Rican Nation

Academic journal article Centro Journal

La Vida En la Colonia: Oscar Lewis, the Culture of Poverty, and the Struggle for the Meaning of the Puerto Rican Nation

Article excerpt

"The data we have on the [Ríos] family and other families can only be understood in the light of Puerto Rican history and it seems to me that it is an unusually sad history, a history of isolation and abandonment, a history with few glorious moments."

(oscar lewis to muna muñoz lee, 1965)

Oscar lewis and la vida do not hold a place of honor in puerto rican scholarship. Lewis's 1966 ethnography of a family of prostitutes from the notorious slum of La Perla in San Juan, Puerto Rico became a New York Times bestseller and won the National Book Award for non-fiction, but it also provoked strong reactions against it, in 1966 and afterwards. There is more to the story, however. La Vida sparked a debate amongst Puerto Rican intellectuals about the nature of Puerto Rican national identity, the colonial relationship between the United States and Puerto Rico, and the meaning of Puerto Rican history. Puerto Rican autonomist leaders criticized La Vida for its stunted interpretation of Puerto Rican history and because they feared the book would perpetuate negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans. Nationalist intellectuals, however, lauded La Vida. Drawing upon ideas from Frantz Fanon, Karl Marx, and Fidel Castro, Puerto Rican nationalists and Lewis used La Vida to document what they saw as the degradation of Puerto Rican national culture caused by American imperialism in the Caribbean.

Building upon years of studies in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and India, Lewis developed a theory that some of the desperately poor in capitalist societies around the world shared a common culture that transcended national boundaries. The culture manifested in family structure and relationships, psychology and personality, and in the relationship between the poor and the larger communities in which they lived. He called this the culture (or sometimes the subculture) of poverty. People living in the culture of poverty were not inferior, and this was not necessarily a negative culture, although Lewis did believe that once it came into being it became self-perpetuating and made it difficult for the poor to escape from poverty. Marxism strongly influenced Lewis; his work was, in part, an attempt at humanizing those whom Marx and others had dismissed as a despicable and reactionary "lumpenproletariat."

Lewis defined the culture of poverty in several lists of traits, which were not consistent. People living in a culture of poverty were disconnected from the larger societies in which they lived. They were materially poor, working in low-wage jobs and suffering from chronic unemployment and underemployment. They owned little and eschewed banks in favor of informal usurious credit arrangements and pawnshops. They distrusted the government, hated the police, and were uninvolved in politics and social organizations. The culture of poverty also was defined by the "slum community," a world inhabited by marginal urban dwellers and poor rural folk moving into the city. The slums had an "esprit de corps" demonstrated by the gregarious nature of personal relationships, by the pride that the residents held for their communities and by the presence of organizations like youth gangs. The slums, however, remained fundamentally disorganized, lacking, according to Lewis, any functional organizing structures beyond the extended family.

The family organization of the culture of poverty was radically different from the middle class. Childhood was less a specially cherished and protected stage of life. Children were subject to frequent physical punishment in authoritarian households. They became sexually active at an early age. Marriage was usually consensual instead of legal and formal. Although the culture was matrifocal, there was a pervasive belief in male superiority. Men frequently beat their wives or abandoned them. Women adopted a martyr complex in response to male machismo.

Finally, the culture of poverty instilled a unique and destructive psychology and set of attitudes in the poor. …

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