"“The Music is Weird:” American Texts and the Devaluation of Puerto Rican Music 1898-1926" by Jose Anazagasty
Jose Anazagasty is an Associate Professor at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez, an American Studies practitioner and a sociologist. His research focuses on the American representation of both Puerto Ricans and their landscape in the aftermath of the Spanish American War of 1898. Email:
This article engages the American representation of Puerto Rican popular music in various texts written in the three decades following the Spanish American War. I argue that their writing about music involved textual economies that assigned more value to American and European music than to Puerto Rican popular music, turning the former into the universal form of musical value, the standard by which all other music, including Puerto Rican music, was to be assessed. These texts were profoundly embedded in a Eurocentric perspective. Euro-centrism cannot be restricted to the geographical and/or geopolitical confines of Europe. Non European societies, including the United Sates, have internalized euro-centric views, beliefs and practices. Eurocentric thought, as noted by Muthyala (2001) have pervaded the American historical and cultural imagination for a very long time. Even when Americans articulated differences between them and Europeans, during the Spanish American War, for example, a “Western bond” was maintained (Doty 1996). The argument is not only that Americans devalued Puerto Rican music on the basis of Eurocentric standards but also that such demeaning was used to rhetorically justify, animate and reaffirm the need for the U. S. modern colonial project in the island. I am not arguing that such debasement came only with American colonialism or with American racism but that it was part of the repertoire of rhetorical strategies used by Americans to justify their imperialist-colonialist project in Puerto Rico.
Before describing both the mode in which American texts produced and allocated value with regards to music and these economies’ relationship to the colonial project, I begin by offering some comments pertaining to the theoretical framework of my study. Then, I discuss the methodological delimitations of the study, followed by an examination of American texts’ economies of music and the manner in which they devalued Puerto Rican popular music. My final remarks draw attention to the connections between these economies and the American modern colonial project in Puerto Rico after the Spanish American War.
The framework I use is ‘textual economics,’ developed by Subramanian Shankar (2001), and used to study the evaluative structures of travel narratives in the context of modern colonialism. It indicates that texts are ensembles of evaluative structures about various things, that texts produce and distribute value. Based on textual economics I argue that American texts written about Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Spanish American War mobilized textual economies that generated and allocated value with regards to popular music. These economies serve rhetorical purposes. Indeed, textual economies of music involve what Spurr (1993) calls “debasement,” one of the preferred rhetorical strategies of European and American colonialism. This was also noted by Franz Fanon (1963). From his perspective the colonizer simply paints the entire way of life of the colonized as the very sign of its poverty of spirit and their constitutional depravity. The object of this humiliation is portrayed and fashioned as suffering from moral and intellectual degradation.
Debasement is an economy or system of value in which the object of devaluation, namely the colonized Other, supplies the negative end of that system. Thus, I intend to show that in the aftermath of the Spanish American War various American writers placed Puerto Rican popular music at the negative end of their system of value regarding music. Other scholars have documented the American use of this strategy to refer to Puerto Rico and its people. Rodríguez (1998), in her analysis of the press coverage of the Spanish American War, found that while Puerto Ricans were often portrayed as submissive and cheerful subjects that welcomed the U.S. military invasion of the island this did not prevent the racist debasement of Puerto Ricans as irrational, aggressive, backward, and indolent. Santiago-Valles (1994), González (1998); Thompson (1996; 2000), and Díaz (2003) have also found that American texts often portrayed and fashioned Puerto Ricans as suffering from moral and intellectual degradation while stressing their differences from Americans. Essays in “We the People” also confirm such debasement (Anazagasty & Cancel 2008). Similar debasing economy was concurrently used as a justification for colonialist intervention and as the necessary iteration of a fundamental difference between the colonizer and the colonized, thus converging with colonialist praxis and its contradictions.
Textual economics draws attention to such praxis, as it points to the production of value and not merely to its distribution. The making of this value is not some built-in feature of the text but results from the human praxis that finds expression in the text and that the text itself, taking up a place in a sequence of events, makes possible. Praxis, understood as “human sensuous activity” or as a general human social activity that, stemming from the social character of human social existence, finds expression in purposeful social organization and transformational activities.
Praxis implies the dialectical relation between humans and nature. In any practice, the determinant instance or element are not the raw materials nor the product, but rather the practice in the narrow sense, labor—of changing materials through means of production and knowledge regarding their use (San Juan 1995). Against the cultural politics of representation Shankar (2001) supports a shift to matters of praxis. Although he recognizes the importance of praxis as conscious political action, he stresses it as a mode of being active in the world—meaning the way in which human beings relate to one another and the environment. In recovering the category of praxis, his textual economics attempt to evade the inadequacy of the “cultural politics of representation” by counter posing it to what he refers to as the “cultural politics of praxis” (19). With the latter, more weight is given to doing and feeling than to speaking and writing, or rather to praxis in its relationship to representations. The goal is to examine how a specific text is the expression of a particular praxis, how that praxis is a theme within a text and the relationship between praxis and the evaluative structures of the text in question. Indeed, raising questions about the textual economy of a specific text will eventually lead to questions of praxis.
Since praxis is any process of conversion of raw materials into an artifact, a change produced by a determinate human labor using a determinate means of production then cultural production, including writing, is understood as a unique mode of production that transforms raw materials (elements of lived experiences) into a specific product (novel, painting, sculpture and so on) by means of a labor process (San Juan 1995). This implies, of course, that cultural production, in all its forms, is united to material practices and conditions, activities and circumstances where the textual economy finds its genesis. That is, cultural production does not belong to ethereal places, having nothing to do with the ordinary—the historical-practical context. It is actually largely influenced by these mundane planes of social activity, which is to say that the sociopolitical order shaped by these relations overdetermine the full range of texts and their evaluative structures. And, of course, these economies in turn have an effect in their historical context.
Textual economics, an anti-formalist approach, then engages the relationship between the evaluative structures of a text—their allocation of value—and its practical and/or historical context, where these textual economies are both produced and consumed. It assumes that the text is an open system whose meanings and evaluative structures flow into that context, the very context that determined and generated those structures and meanings in the first place. Textual economics is then useful for examining depictions of music in their relationship to a particular socio-historical context, in our case a context shaped by a colonial relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States. Thus, I argue that in various American texts about Puerto Rico the production of musical value emerged out of the modern colonialist praxis that found expression in these texts, and these themselves, taking up their assigned position in a chain of events linked to the Spanish American War, made possible. The war required a great deal of energy committed to symbolic production aimed at consolidating and legitimating effective control of colonies and to satisfy the “need” for information of people on both the U.S. and Spain (Diaz 2000). As such, American texts about Puerto Rico were players in a wide-ranging process of instituting imperial hegemony; part of the practices of conceiving, constructing, legitimating, and ruling an island and its people. These texts were then part of activities and discourses that sought to define the island and its inhabitants as dependent subjects and to define their new political, economic, and cultural relationships with the United States of America (Thompson 1996; 2002). That is, they were part of the colonialist project: a simultaneous effort to, on the one hand, interpret, represent, and explain social dynamics and relations in “Porto Rico” and to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular social lines of distinction, on the other hand. Music provided just another venue to do it.
American texts about Puerto Rico as well as their comments on Puerto Rican popular music were then committed to institute and legitimate American imperial hegemony in the island, thus being connected to modern colonial praxis. As such these texts, and their textual economies of value as well, were definitely connected to what Dussel (2003, 48) calls an “irrational praxis of violence,” that is to say, the “myth of modernity.” The myth embraces the Eurocentric belief that Europe and the U. S. are more developed and superior to the rest of the world. The myth also sticks to the idea that such superiority requires Americans and Europeans to “civilize,” “develop” and “modernize” the “primitive,” “uncivilized,” and “barbarian” Others. The myth also holds that the path towards civilization and modernity must be the one followed by Europe, thus deploying a unilineal view of history and progress (i.e., development fallacy). From the viewpoint of the myth, resistance by “barbarians” should be met with violence if necessary, meaning that all obstacles to civilization and modernization should be eradicated by any means necessary. Indeed, violence and the losses resulting from modernization are most often seen as unavoidable. The myth characterizes the one exerting violence as a hero while defining the subaltern Other as guilty of the violence exercised over him. Modern colonialism is thus rendered innocent and liberating. American texts’ accounts of Puerto Ricans reproduced the myth and thus legitimated the irrational and modern American praxis of colonialist violence. These texts animated and vindicated the structural violence of the socio-economic process that dispossessed so many Puerto Ricans. Their comments about music were also entrenched in the myth, thus reproducing it while justifying colonialist praxis. Their accounts of music contributed to the rendering of modern American colonialism blameless and beneficial, even in musical matters. Drawing attention to music disguises the violent qualities of modern colonialism.
The masking reveals a contradiction and the main reason for the obsessive devaluation of the colonized that the myth, founded on the Manichean allegory, entails, which is the contradiction typical of American texts and their representation of Puerto Rican culture, including that of their music. As JanMohammed (1995) explains the contradiction:
Troubled by the nagging contradiction between the theoretical justification of exploitation and the barbarity of is actual practice, it also attempts to mask the contradiction by obsessively portraying the supposed inferiority and barbarity of the racial Other, thereby insisting on the profound moral difference between self and Other. Within this symbiotic relation, the Manichean allegory functions as a transformative mechanism between the affective pleasure derived from the moral superiority and material profit that motivates imperialism, on the one hand, and the formal devices (genres, stereotypes, and so on) of colonialist fiction, on the other hand (23)
The Manichean allegory entails a dualist moral economy that from an ethnocentric and racist perspective devalues the morality of the subaltern Other while it valorizes that of the colonizer. Certainly, as JanMohammed further explains, the devaluation of the Other entailed by the Manichean story, not only masks the contradiction between the justification of modern colonialism and actual colonialist practices but also enables the colonizer to increase its moral superiority, to accumulate superfluous morality. A surplus of superiority and supremacy was indeed the outcome of most textual economies in colonialist literature. Thus, textual economies of music enabled Americans to accumulate surplus pre-eminence with regards to music, especially in contrast to Puerto Rican music.
Music also provided American writers with yet another opportunity for the reaffirmation of American identity. Their texts appeared against the background of various issues that questioned the identity of the U.S. as a unique and exceptional power, debates over whether or not to annex Puerto Rico and other islands. Moreover, the possibility that the U. S. would become a colonial power would remove one of the few remaining distinctions between it and Europe. Essentially, the epoch was a time of crisis that called into question American identity and the existing social order (Doty 1996). As such, American texts about Puerto Rico were part of the practices and discourses aimed at making sense of the situation and at reaffirming the American identity at a time when the U.S. was becoming an imperial power.
Confronted by an island and a people hardly disciplined by American signification or codified in detail by the dominant ideology, American writers responded to “Porto Ricans” in terms of difference. They chose to assume that Americans and Puerto Ricans were essentially and almost irremediably different. Assuming such absolute and fixed distinctions they most often ignored the viewpoint of Puerto Ricans while turning to the security of their own cultural perspective, certainly a Eurocentric perspective. As a result, no authentic and careful understanding of Puerto Ricans occurred in those texts. Moreover, their ethnocentrism, which certainly involved assumptions about the moral superiority of Americans, prevented them from questioning the validity of the formation of their own society, their representation of Puerto Ricans, and their colonial practices. They naturalized the assumed differences between Americans and Puerto Ricans, elevating these differences to the level of metaphysical fact. The invention of the devalued Other—the Puerto Ricans—became the invention of the valued Self—the Americans. Their portrayal of Puerto Rican music exemplifies this process.
To recapitulate, my main thesis is that American textual economies of music, Eurocentric in character, positioned Puerto Rican popular music at the negative end of a musical value system while concurrently portraying Puerto Ricans as suffering from ethical, intellectual and creative degradation. Puerto Rican popular music was then effectively devalued. Such devaluation enabled Americans writers to mask the contradiction between their legitimating of colonialism and the violence of its actual practices. Additionally, I argue that these textual economies of music were used to justify American colonialist intervention in the island and as just another record of a fundamental difference in the identities of Puerto Ricans and Americans. In these texts, the construction of American and Puerto Rican music rested heavily on the euro-centrically fixed boundaries between Americans and Puerto Ricans. In doing so, American writers placed Puerto Rican popular music beyond the borders of American ‘civilization.’
Some Methodological Remarks
My research concerning textual economies of music is embedded in what Michael R. Curry (1996) calls new common sense, which involves three moments. First, this new common sense rethinks language: all language from this viewpoint is not literal but figurative. Second, it always takes knowledge to be derivative or relative to a particular viewpoint. Finally, the world, consisting of all kinds of objects, events and processes, is taken by those adhering to the new common sense to be essentially chaotic, non-reducible to a set of elements.
From that perspective I take the American writing examined here as essentially rhetorical, always derivative of or relative to a particular point of view, an imperialist viewpoint attempting to persuade an audience of the legitimacy of American intervention in the island and of the assumed differences between Americans and the locals. Thus I take American writing about Puerto Rico and its inhabitants as an expression of the manner in which imperial ideals, especially the Eurocentric thought pervading them, have served the historical process of colonization while producing Puerto Rico and its inhabitants for their readerships.
Students of American writing on Puerto Rico, among them, Thompson (1996; 2002), Santiago-Valles (1994), Díaz Quiñones (2000), Hernández (2006), González (1998), and Rodríguez (1998), has shown that the American dominion over the island—its colonialist praxis—have always been connected to diverse rhetorical practices, with various texts performing an important function for the American-colonialist project there. These texts provided useful information to the colonial administrators of the island in both the U. S. and Puerto Rico. American writers also provided information regarding Puerto Rico’s culture and social life, its population, its history, its geography and its economy, among other things. They also offered information regarding the military, geopolitical and economic importance of the island, and the benefits and difficulties of its administration. Additionally, they justified, popularized, and animated the American colonialist project in the island. Thompson (2002) best summarizes the role of these texts:
These books were part of a comprehensive cultural process of establishing imperial hegemony; part of the practices of conceiving, creating, justifying, and governing a far-flung empire composed of an incredibly diverse group of islands spread across the Caribbean and the Pacific. They were part of an imperial discourse that sought to define Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, and the Philippines as “dependent peoples” and to delineate their new political, economic, and cultural relationships with the United States. (4)
American writers then actively contributed to the production of an efficient apparatus of producing and consuming knowledge about Puerto Ricans and their culture. This apparatus produced and distributed knowledge of almost all aspects of Puerto Rico and its inhabitants, meaning that these were taken to be objects to be studied, inspected, molded and controlled. The construction of that body of knowledge also entailed the ‘Othering’ of Puerto Ricans, which were constituted as beings not only absolutely and oppositely distinct to Americans but also inferior to them. As stated above this othering was then deeply Eurocentric, meaning that most American texts about Puerto Rico were what JanMohammed calls “imaginary texts” that examine the Other at an emotional plane, seeing and representing it as absolutely evil (JanMohamed in The Postcolonial Reader, 1995).
I must, however, make clear that although embedded in the new common sense, my study is not idealist neither is it only attentive to language and representation. Rather, and while acknowledging the importance of representations, it attempts, by way of textual economics, to draw attention to the relationship between texts and their historical-practical context, and, consequently, to what Shankar (2001) calls the “cultural politics of praxis.”
Besides defining American texts as rhetorical in character my research, like all kinds of research, necessarily involves acts of delimitations, acts by which something is cut out of a great diversity of materials. My research involves four important delimitations. One concerns the universe of possible cases. There have been all too many imperial encounters between North and South. Similarly, there have been too many imperial encounters involving the U.S., which makes the universe of potential cases quite large. My choice of the imperial encounter involving the U.S. and Puerto Rico is therefore selective. I have chosen this encounter mainly because of the relative absence of Puerto Rico from studies of U.S. imperialism and American Studies and because of personal interests. Despite its relevance, American Studies scholars and students of U. S. imperialism have rarely examined writings about Puerto Rico, which makes its study a timely contribution. Even among students of Puerto Rican history and culture the study of American writing about the island, including their writing about Puerto Rican music, remains limited to a small number of scholars (Thompson 1996; 2004; González 1998; Santiago-Valles 1994; Hernández 2006; Rodríguez 1998; Díaz 2000).
Another important delimitation concerns representations and the representing subjects. My research focuses on representations of Puerto Rican music by Americans, which excludes representations of American music by Puerto Ricans, representations of Puerto Rican music by Puerto Ricans, representations of Puerto Rican music by Spaniards and of Spanish music by Puerto Ricans and Americans. This exclusion is not meant to suggest that any alternative representations of music and Puerto Rico that may be present are unimportant or passive. Nor do I want to argue that hegemonic and counter-hegemonic modalities regarding Puerto Rico and music are unrelated and independent from one another. Rather, my intention is to emphasize the fact that the imperial encounter involved was and is such that the U.S. representations of music in various texts authorized particular valuations of music as well as practices of domination and oppression, activities that most likely would have been considered unjustifiable were alternative representations of music and society taken seriously by American writers. It is important to acknowledge that the negative valuation of Puerto Rican popular music by Spaniards and Puerto Ricans were also common. Nor were all American valuations of Puerto Rican music negative. Although rare, some Puerto Rican music was actually praised by Americans. George Cabot Ward, for instance offered a more positive portrayal of Puerto Rican music even if not necessarily devoid of imperialist portrayals of Puerto Ricans (Dower 1983). Long before the U.S. invasion of Puerto Rico many writers assessed Puerto Rican music, including Manuel Alonso (1849) in El Gibaro and Francisco del Valle Atiles (1849) in El Campesino Puertorriqueño. See also Luis Bonafoux’s (1879) El Carnaval de las Antillas, Fernando Callejo’s (1915) Música y Músicos Puertorriqueños, and Salvador Brau’s (1972) Ensayos. These writers too often devalued Puerto Rican music, meaning that the devaluing of Puerto Rican music is not limited to Americans.
An additional delimitation concerns periodization. Americans have written many narratives about Puerto Rico since 1898. I have chosen to examine only texts written from 1898 to 1926, the earlier decades of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico. These were the years when the U. S. colonial administration of the island anticipated the march of capital in Puerto Rico and enacted policies that set in motion the colony’s transition to 20th-century capitalism. These were also the decades when the U.S. moved to dismantle the colonial apparatus left by Spain while creating and forcing its own colonial administration of Puerto Rico. The U.S. invested heavily in Americanizing Puerto Rico while turning the colony into a Caribbean enclave of the United States. This was also the time when American colonial forces produced an efficient apparatus of producing and consuming knowledge about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, including knowledge about the conditions of production (labor, space and nature) and numerous aspects of Puerto Rican culture, including its music (Cabán 1999; Dietz 1986).
A final delimitation concerns the sources to be analyzed. There have been all too many books and articles written about Puerto Rico by American writers, even shortly after the Spanish American War. Out of the possible universe of texts, I examined the following books : The Porto Rico of To-Day by Albert Gardner Robinson ( 2005), Porto Rico by Knowlton Mixer ( 2005), Puerto Rico by William Dinwiddie ( 2005), The History of Puerto Rico by R.A. Van Middeldyk ( 2005), First Annual Report by Charles H. Allen ( 2005), Political Development of Porto Rico by Edward S. Wilson ( 2005), Report of Porto Rico by Henry K. Carroll ( 2005), Puerto Rico and Its Resources by Frederick A. Ober ( 2005), Porto Rico by A.D. Hall (1898), Porto Rico by Joseph B. Seabury (1908), Down in Porto Rico by George Milton Fowles (1906), Our Island Empire by Charles Morris (1899), and Our Islands and their People as seen with Camera and Pencil by José de Olivares (1899). In addition, I examined essays published in National Geographic (or National Geographic Magazine) and The Four-Track News (or The Travel Magazine). The choices are therefore selective. These texts were chosen mostly because of their obvious identification with the U.S. colonial project in Puerto Rico and for their debasement of Puerto Rican music. However, not all of the texts and items examined commented on Puerto Rican music. Dinwiddie, Fowles, Seabury, Mixer, Ober, Van Middeldyk, Carroll and Marcus were the only writers that commented Puerto Rican music. It is to these comments and their economies that I now turn to.
American Writing and the Devaluation of Puerto Rican Popular Music
The report for the U.S. government produced by Henry K. Carroll ( 2005) referred to Puerto Rican music by indicating that the islanders were fond of music. This theme is recurrent in most descriptions of Puerto Ricans, especially representations of jíbaros (peasants). Thus, in his 1899 report to the United States Federal government Carroll deployed an image of Puerto Ricans as naturally inclined towards entertainment. For him Puerto Ricans, although backward, pleasure-seeking, and illiterate, were inclined to social intercourse and were fond of music, dances and string instruments. Likewise, Knowlton Mixer ( 2005) found that Puerto Ricans were fond of entertainment and of entertaining. They were, he added, especially fond of dancing, noting the numerous balls, dances and carnivals celebrated in the island.
Other American writers, however, not only noted Puerto Ricans’ attachment to music, but went on to inspect the Puerto Rican melody, instruments and dances. Such was the case of Dinwiddie, Seabury, Fowles, Ober and Van Middeldyk. Their discussion of Puerto Rican music was certainly not extensive or detailed. Yet, their descriptions of Puerto Rican music have many things to tell us about how invested has the U.S. colonialism and its representations of Puerto Rico been on certain imperial images and ideologies and how even music appreciation (or depreciation) was put at the service of U.S. imperial expansion while reinforcing the boundaries between Americans and Puerto Ricans.
Dinwiddie ( 2005) identified three “cadences” in Puerto Rican music: the homemade guitar, the güiro and the drums. His description of such artifacts was entrenched on an economy of instruments that devalued all three cadences. Regarding the homemade guitar Dinwiddie ( 2005) referred to the “thrum of the home-made, soft-toned guitar” that “beats out a half-Spanish, half Indian air,” a mestizaje repudiated and rejected by those adhering to notions of racial purity, a rejection popular among the Americans of the time (164). Thus his valuation of the instrument was connected to a racial economy that while devaluing mestizos assigned more value to whites. A second sound identified by Dinwiddie is the güiro whose quality, he argued, lied somewhere between the rattle of a snake and “the pit-a-patting of a clever shuffle-dancer on a sanded floor.” Thus, regarding this strange and odd instrument Dinwiddie ( 2005) wrote:
The instrument is called a “guida” (weé-da), and is made from the great curved-neck gourd, the music being produced by passing a bit of wire from an umbrella frame (how the primitive and civilized are mingled!) up and down a series of notches cut from end to end on the outside curve of the gourd. There is some amplitude to the instrument, for, by playing higher or lower on the narrowing shell, some difference in tone is gained. (164)
Dinwiddie rendered the güiro primitive and in the process marked a difference between the “primitive” Puerto Ricans and the “civilized” colonizer thus affirming the alleged superiority of the sophisticated colonists. Dinwiddie, however, did not stop with the güiro and went on to debase Puerto Rican drums, which he also rendered primitive. Indeed, he compared Puerto Rican drums to those of the Yaqui and Papago Indians of Sonora Mexico, which he also conceived of as primal. Dinwiddie further demeaned Puerto Rican drums by declaring that: “only the peevish, fretful cries of a dying infant take the place of the wail of a coyote out in the moonlit cacti” (p. 164). Besides degrading Puerto Rican instruments he also introduced an economy of dances that debased Puerto Rican popular dances, which he described as aesthetically bizarre, odd and elemental. For Dinwiddie ( 2005):
The music is weird, as it is wafted on the night air, and the dancing, which takes place later in the bare patch in front of a hut, by the flickering light of a wavering torch, is fantastic in the extreme. The dance has a slow and melancholic step, and the dancers shuffle round and round, with a slight bending of the knee which keeps the body bobbing, and yet they enjoy it. The funeral procession of slow waltzing, affected by some enfeebled Americans, is the nearest approach one can make to comparison. (164)
Puerto Rican music, already unenthusiastically aestheticized and portrayed as weak and enfeebled by Dinwiddie was also deemed insubstantial and absurd, “fantastic in the extreme.” Dinwiddie was deploying a rhetorical strategy Spurr (1993) calls insubstantialization. Thus, the author emphasized the unreal, unbelievable, dreamlike and far-fetched aspects of the music of the colonized, an insubstiantialization that freed him from the burden of historical, cultural and material reality. As such the colonized world was seen as a weird and dangerous counterpart to the dissolving consciousness of the U.S. colonizer, a dissolution that can be pleasant or puzzling, as in Dinwiddie. In either case, the seductive and puzzling power of Puerto Rican music was to be avoided. For Dinwiddie only the enfeebled and/or weak Americans, not the strong and civilized among them, were capable of embracing such weird music. Dinwiddie thus policed and reinforced the alleged boundaries between Americans and Puerto Ricans; a taste for Puerto Rican music was to be evaded.
For Dinwiddie, however, and despite its puzzling weirdness, Puerto Rican music was a childlike delight—an “innocent amusement”—for Puerto Rican peasants, who in Dinwiddie’s view lacked access to other forms of amusement, other than gambling and cockfighting, which he deemed immoral. In describing Puerto Rican music as innocent Dinwiddie invoked the view of the colonized as children, reiterating an economy of development that assumed the incapability of the childlike colonized subject to stand on its own while affirming the assumed manhood and maturity of the colonizer. This justified and authorized the “civilizing mission” of colonialism—the strong guiding hand of the colonizer—in which the latter is expected to teach the colonized lessons in self-control and discipline. Thus, Dinwiddie presented us with a view of Puerto Rican music as primitive and unsophisticated, a view that not only debased Puerto Rican music and reinforced boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized but that it also affirmed the colonizer’s authority over Puerto Rico and its people, and a population that in his view needed the masculine instructive guidance of Americans. Thus, while devaluing Puerto Rican music, which is portrayed as primitive, infantile, weird, and puzzling, Dinwiddie rendered Euro-American music more valuable than Puerto Rican music, for although it is hardly mentioned by Dinwiddie, Euro-American music served as the universal standard of value by which all music was to be valued.
Ober ( 2005) also noted Puerto Ricans’ affection for music, which in his view was a consequence of the Spanish origins of Puerto Ricans: “It may be needless to add that, being of Spanish origin, the people of Puerto Rico are extremely fond of music. Here, as in Spain, may be seen numerous strolling bands of guitar and mandolin players, and at evening time the air is filled with music” (184-5). For Ober, it was the European background of Puerto Ricans that explained their affection for music. That is, Puerto Ricans’ fondness for music was racially and/or biologically determined; it was due to Spanish blood. Like Dinwiddie Ober too connected his economy of music to a racial and/or ethnic economy that assigned more value to Europeans, whose blood, Ober stated, even increased the value of Puerto Ricans. Ober, like Dinwiddie, also made reference to the güiro, which in his view was called musical only by courtesy. Yet, for Ober ( 2005) one can get accustomed to its sounds, stating:
This gourd has its recognised place in every native “band,” for in the hands of an expert, a rhythmic, swishing sound is produced by the rubbing of the scarified surface adds volume to the music, and when one has become accustomed to the noise (something like the soft shuffle of feet on a sanded floor), the effect is with a two-tined steel fork, or even an umbrella rib. The sound evoked accentuates and far from disagreeable. (185)
Despite his acknowledging of the “far from disagreeable” sound of the güiro Ober’s economy of instruments also undervalued Puerto Rican music and its traditional instruments. By calling the güiro musical “only by courtesy” and by placing the word band into quotations (see excerpt above) Ober questioned the value of Puerto Rican popular music. By doing so, and although indirectly, Ober rendered other music more valuable, meaning Euro-American music. The latter served once again as the universal standard of value by which all music was to be valued.
For R.A. Van Middeldyk ( 2005) the songs of “jíbaros” had either a worthless disposition or an obscene quality, lacking any artistic value, which for him was explained by the fact that they were intellectually poor. He also devalued the güiro by stating that it only produced a noise displeasing to the unaccustomed person. Thus, Van Middeldyk ( 2005) stated:
Intellectually the jíbaro is as poor as he is physically. His illiteracy is complete; his speech is notoriously incorrect; his songs, if not of a silly, meaningless character, are often obscene; sometimes they betray the existence of a poetic sentiment. These songs are usually accompanied by the music of a stringed instrument of the guitar kind made by the musician himself, to which is added the “güiro,” a kind of ribbed gourd which is scraped with a small stick to the measure of the tune, and produces a noise very trying to the nerves of a person not accustomed to it. (199)
By debasing Puerto Rican songs and instruments Van Middeldyk, like the authors discussed previously, also assumed an economy that situated Puerto Rican popular music at the negative end of the system of value with regards to music. By rendering Puerto Rican popular music less valuable he too assigned more value to Euro-American music. Once again, in his economy of music, one marked by his economy of nations, Euro-American music served as the universal standard of value by which all music was to be valued. And, of course, both economies were also tied to a class economy that assigned little value to jíbaros, which Van Middeldyk construed as obscene and dull.
In Down in Porto Rico Fowles (1906) also devalued Puerto Rican popular music. Like other American writers he too described Puerto Ricans as “musically inclined.” However, such portrayal of Puerto Ricans did not preclude Fowles for debasing Puerto Rican music, which he rendered primitive. Indeed, like Dinwiddie, Fowles too described Puerto Rican instruments as archaic and antiquated, incapable of motivating the slightest interest of “true” musicians. Thus, Fowles (1906) wrote:
The people of the Island seem to be fond of music, but their ideas of it are most primitive. The common people have a gourdlike instrument with a number of horizontal indentures over which they draw a stick rapidly. This is called the ‘juiro’ (pronounced ‘weero’ or ‘witcherow’), and is used to accompany the guitar, tambourine or violin. The piano is used to a limited extent among the better classes, but their use is not such as to arouse the enthusiasm of a musician. The instruments are chiefly of inferior make, and owing to the climatic conditions, the wires become rusty, and the tones produced are decidedly ‘tin-panny.’ These are played with but little expression, the idea seemingly being to make as loud a sound as possible. Some of the brass bands in the plazas of the larger towns produce fairly good music, but others of them are simply nerve-racking. Much that passes under the name of music could more properly be called noise, but where Porto Ricans have had the opportunity for study and development, they have proved that musical ability is not wanting around them. (50)
Fowles deemed both the instruments and the sounds produced by Puerto Rican musicians—fake musicians—primitive, upsetting and unpleasant. Additionally, Fowles, reproduced ideologies regarding class differences and the differences between peasants and urbanites, thus classifying Puerto Rican music accordingly. For him, the “better class” among Puerto Ricans produced a somewhat better music than did their counterparts, although both were of inferior quality in Fowles’s view. Likewise, Fowles deemed urban music better than rural music. Hence, Fowles connected his textual economy of music to economies concerning class and place of residence, economies that assigned more value to the “better” class and urbanites. Yet, all together Puerto Rican music, regardless of class or place, was rendered inferior to European and American music. For Fowles, most of what was considered music in Puerto Rico was just obnoxious noise. However, he ended by stating that instruction proved that “musical ability” was not missing among Puerto Ricans. The formal education of Puerto Ricans was fundamental for the American colonialist project, revealing the modern-liberal yet paternalistic quality of the project.
In Fowles’s view, Puerto Ricans had the potential not only o becoming educated subjects but also of becoming better musicians. Consequently, in debasing Puerto Rican music, Fowles not only affirmed the assumed superiority of the Americans and their music, but also, by stressing the lack of training he authorized colonialism and the white man’s burden. After all, all that Puerto Ricans musicians required was schooling, a proper Christian-Protestant education capable of improving Puerto Ricans and their music. Thus, in the paternalistic posture typical of the colonizer Fowles (1906) added:
In singing, they have commendable enthusiasm. Their voices are often shrill and harsh, lacking sweetness or soul power. This no doubt is due largely to their lack of training and practice. The church music in which they took part was limited to the chants of the Catholic Church. Secular songs were scarce and only the rudest kind were sung by any great number of the inhabitants. Since the introduction of gospel hymns by the Protestants, and the songs of the public schools, and greater facilities for the study of music, there has been a wonderful improvement in this respect, and all over the Island one can now hear the cheerful songs learned in schools and church and from special instructors. (51)
Once again, like Dinwiddie, Ober, and Van Middeldy, Fowles too devalued Puerto Rican music while assigning more value to Euro-American music, which also, and once again, served as the universal equivalent form of value with regards to music. In relation to this standard Puerto Rican popular music is short of value. And, only the guiding hand of the Protestant colonizer could increase its value. So, he also introduced an economy of religion that assigned more value to Protestants than to Catholics.
In Porto Rico Seabury (1908) also made reference to Puerto Rican musical activity and Puerto Ricans’ love for music and noted that:
Porto Ricos’s love of music is then, one of the many points in her favor. As a rule, the people have good voices, and sing with pleasing effect, alone and in chorus. Every city, every town, and, every little hamlet supports its band of musicians. Concerts are given twice a week in every important plaza throughout the island. All the people attend these concerts; they promenade back and forth for two joyous hours, clad in their best, chatting to each other, listening meanwhile to the music. (48)
For Seabury, Puerto Rico’s love for music, a point in favor of this feminized land, explained the vast musical activity of the time and the presence of good voices among Puerto Ricans. Seabury also recalled a belief among Spartans that too great fondness of music would make people weak. However, he rejected such belief on the grounds that it was largely discredited. For him, at the beginning of the 20th-century, the appreciation of music was considered a great cultural advantage. Indeed, it was already possible, Seabury suggested, identifying “nations especially musical” like Germany and Italy, which allowed him to establish a classification of nations that turned Euro-American music into the most valuable music, the universal equivalent form of musical value. However, Seabury was confronted with Puerto Rican’s singing ability and love for music, which presented him with a paradox that challenged his classificatory scheme. How can Puerto Ricans, the primitive subaltern, show so much love for music and such high quality voices? He solved this paradox by recalling racial mixing among Puerto Ricans.
In Seabury’s opinion, it was the European-white blood of Puerto Ricans that explained their affection for music as well as their singing abilities. That is, Puerto Ricans fondness for music and their musical ability was racially and/or biologically determined; it was due to the white blood of the Creole inhabitants. Hence, Seabury deployed biological racism and/or the racial ideology of the time, an ideology by which race was considered a biological concept and by which it was believed that superior races produced superior cultures.
For that reason, racial intermixtures resulted in the degradation of the superior racial stock or in the limited betterment of the inferior racial stock. It is that racial intermixture what for Seabury (1908) explained Puerto Rico’s musical inclination and ability, connecting his economy of voices to a racial economy: “There are many Creoles in the island, natives who have in their veins French and Spanish blood; a fact which partly account for the reputation it has of good singing” (48). But given the racial intermixtures of Puerto Ricans, a sign of weakness in the racial ideology of the time, their music could only be “minor in character,” which rendered Puerto Rican music still inferior. With his deployment of biological racism Seabury then introduced like Ober and Dinwiddie a racial economy whose allocation of valued favored whites over nonwhites. Thus, at the end, Seabury too devalued Puerto Rican music, which in his view was simply insignificant, lying at the negative end of his musical classification, not to be confused with the “nations especially musical.” And, it was precisely these “nations especially musical” that in Seabury’s economy of nations and music constituted the universal equivalent form of value.
Like Dinwiddie, Seabury also rendered the performance of Puerto Rican popular music sad and dreamy. Hence, he too emphasized, in a way reminiscent of Dinwiddie, the insubstantial and dreamlike aspects of Puerto Rican music, especially the “dreamy airs” of the guitar by writing that: “On a bare patch in front of a rude hut, by the light of a flickering torch, a group of dancers may often be seen. The step is slow and measured, the feet keeping time to the music of a guitar which is playing sad and dreamy airs” (Seabury 1908, 48). Thus, Seabury also warned against the heathen like seduction of the colonized Puerto Ricans and the dangers of their dreamlike music, consequently establishing boundaries between the colonizer and the colonized.
Akin to Dinwiddie, Seabury also moved from a description of Puerto Rican music to the immorality of gambling and cockfighting. Thus, while he rejected the Spartan belief that too much fondness for music leads to weaknesses he nevertheless reproduced such belief by substituting gambling and cockfighting for music. For him, too much fondness and/or addiction to gambling and cockfighting was a serious moral flaw among Puerto Ricans. Indeed, Seabury declared regarding gambling: “The fondness for amusement is apparent everywhere. Unfortunately, the desire of the people for recreation leads them into some very injurious pastimes. The Porto Ricans are addicted to all sorts of games of chance” (Seabury 1908, 49).
Seabury (1908) also pointed to the nationalist orientation of the song La Borinqueña by declaring: “One often hears, from some unknown quarter, the national air, ‘Borinquen,’ which proclaims the beauty of the isle. Though really patriotic songs are rarely heard, a true love of country exists among the people, and is sure to be developed in the course of time” (48). Basically, he presaged growing nationalism in Puerto Rico.
To sum up, American textual economies of music, certainly Eurocentric positioned Puerto Rican popular music at the negative end of their value system with regards to music while concurrently portraying Puerto Ricans as suffering from moral, intellectual and artistic degradation. Puerto Rican popular music was, in effect, devalued a great deal. It was placed beneath Euro-American ‘civilization.’ Such was the definitive fate of Puerto Rican music in most American texts about the island written in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. However, the depreciation of Puerto Rican music was also the positive appraisal of American and European music, which enabled American writers to generate an excess of musicality for the Americans and Europeans.
American writing about Puerto Rico in the first decades of U.S. colonialism, classified and devalued Puerto Rican music on the basis of textual economies that rhetorically justified and brought to live the modern colonial project while indicating its assumed certainty. The American assessment of Puerto Rican music contained five evaluative structures or economies: the valuation of musical instrumentation; the valuation of musical performance; the valuation of singing abilities; the evaluation of songs; and the valuation of sound effects.
Regarding the valuation of musical instrumentation, American writers deemed Puerto Rican musical instruments primitive, thus asserting the assumed technological superiority of the United States. As such, they proclaimed the U. S. the legitimate successor of Western civilization and the mightiest embodiment of science, technology and progress itself. Concerning the valuation of performance, writers also debased the musical presentation of Puerto Rican dancers and musicians; a performance comparable only to funeral processions and the dance of “weak” Americans, not to the performance and presentation of the most civilized. With regards to the valuation of singing, these writers deemed Puerto Rican’s singing abilities unrefined, although improvable through training, instruction and discipline, thus justifying Americanization and the colonial project, which for them was the only venture capable of improving Puerto Ricans, of civilizing Puerto Ricans even musically. Thus, the American portrayal of Puerto Rican music in the examined texts built legitimacy and respectability for the colonial project by redefining its scope to include musical instruction, which rendered colonialism instructive, educational, moral and practical.
As to the evaluation of songs, writers such as Van Middeldyk, denigrated the lyrical content of Puerto Rican popular songs, and the jíbaro intellect with it, thus reaffirming the assumed superiority of Americans. Finally, these U.S. writers’ valuation of sound-effects deemed the cadence and audibility of Puerto Rican music a fantastic, weird, upsetting and disturbing noise Americans should avoid, in consequence reinforcing boundaries between them and Puerto Ricans, a fortification that concealed both the desire and fear of identification with the colonized.
The above-mentioned evaluative structures regarding music were, of course, connected to other textual economies, particularly class, racial and gender economies, as well as the economy of progress, the economy of infantilism, and the economy of religion. American writers brought together race, class, and gender, and so on, in establishing the various images and narratives used to depict and valuate Puerto Rican popular music and in the narrative representations used in the rhetorical humiliation of Puerto Ricans. Although the above-mentioned economies informed the depictions of music it was racialized differences between Puerto Ricans and white Americans that most frequently shaped their textual economies of music. This devaluation was, of course, overtly and openly racist. Most American writing about Puerto Rico was undeniably informed by biological racism, an ideology by which race was considered exclusively biological and by which it was thought that the Anglo-Saxon race, given its alleged biological superiority produced superior cultures, including superior music.
The American texts examined here were part of the colonialist project: a simultaneous effort to, on the one hand, interpret, represent, and explain social dynamics and relations in “Porto Rico” and to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular social lines of distinction, on the other hand. Very much a part of the colonial project, the knowledge about Puerto Rican music contained in these texts, provided just another venue to chart the way for the colonization, subordination and over-exploitation of Puerto Rico by legitimizing American colonialism and its practices in Puerto Rico. Basically, Americans, allegedly superior, were obliged to bring good music to the island.
Their depictions of music characterized the ones exerting violence—Americans—as heroes, as good musicians capable of properly training Puerto Ricans in the art of music. American colonialism was thus rendered blameless, beneficial and didactic. American texts’ accounts of Puerto Ricans reproduced the myth of modernity and thus disguised and legitimated the irrational and modern American praxis of colonialist violence. The representation, interpretation, assessment, and explanation of Puerto Rican music, a component of the many hegemonic texts about Puerto Rico that made music intelligible to a readership, enabled American readers, especially white Protestant heterosexual males of the middle and upper classes to use that knowledge as reference; portrayals of Puerto Rican music helped these readers make sense of at least this aspect of Puerto Rican culture. Yet, there is a sense, as it happens in most representations of Puerto Ricans by Americans, in which depictions of Puerto Rican music simply rendered Puerto Ricans and their music an already read text. It reproduced the images of Puerto Rican culture found elsewhere among Americans. Indeed, the Puerto Ricans found in the examined texts the primal exotica most white Americans expected to find in the island. But such representation of Puerto Ricans also turned white Americans themselves into an already read text. Evolving in a comparative but ethnocentric framework Euro-American music emerged as the universal equivalent by which all other music was measured. It was simply just another way to reaffirm the American identity.
As stated above, the aftermath of the Spanish American War was a time of crisis that called into question American identity and the existing socio-political order (Doty 1996). American texts responded to that crisis and attempted to make sense of the situation, most often in favor of American imperialism. Hence, textual economies of music provided American writers with another opportunity to reaffirm American identity and legitimate colonialist intervention and administration in Puerto Rico. Music was just another arena for the reproduction of a national identity and to justify and institute a particular form of governmentality, one based on the subjugation and absolute control of the subaltern Other, even if through a supposedly “benevolent assimilation.”
Ultimately, textual economies of music were part of the practices of conceiving, constructing, legitimating, and ruling Puerto Rico and its people. They were part of activities and discourses that sought to define the island and its inhabitants as inferior subjects, something allegedly obvious from listening to and assessing their music, and to delineate the colonial relationship in terms of that social differentiation. After all, only colonization could guarantee better musicality among Puerto Ricans, another liberating gift coming from their “white love.”
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