Monday, August 27, 2012

the City College and ‘la isla de la simpatía”

Juan Ramón Jiménez was so impressed by a particular Puerto Rican quality, the smiles, that the Nobel laureate wrote a book, Isla de la Simpatía*, dedicated to this marvelous and soothing quality.  Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico smile when greeting you; and they do so whenever they encounter each other, unless they are in some kind of struggle, but other than that they smile. Though, most Puerto Ricans in New York have not lost this quality, not all have kept smiling when encoutering each other.

When I started to work at the College, there were seven Puerto Ricans working at the School of Education. By the end of the seventies, most of them were either not given tenure, or, for obvious reasons others decided to leave. It was the seventies and all of these faculty members integrated the political situation of these unique colonials with the content and process of educational programs. The very progressive school did not seem to be very interested in identifying and hiring members of this ethnic group. It is easier to discuss and study Dewey and Piaget without having to face issues of colonialism in your backyard, linguistic and political oppression.

Not until the late eighties and nineties, when it was convenient for the School to bring Puerto Ricans into the faculty, my own sense of loneliness and defensiveness began to fade away. Other than two or three colleagues, the rest was simply a bunch of dishonest characters dressed up as progressives; pleasant but “hipócritas a la máxima potencia.” Thus, when Puerto Ricans were brought to work in a place where my accent and educational ideas were continuously under criticism, it was great once more to be surrounded by people I thought would understand where I was coming from and support me. And to some extent they did, until the Puerto Rican “sonrisa” showed me how naïve I was.

When coming across one of the new employees, I gave her a big smile. She looked at me and continued walking as if I did not exist. I shared my bewilderment with another colleague who most probably told the “seriota” (this is the term PRs use to refer to people who do not smile); and suddenly, whenever I went into the office of the “seriota” everyone in the office where the “seriota” worked was smiling at me and sarcastically saying, “Hello, Gerardo”.  I went from cultural solidario to a payaso.

It was very naïve on my part to think that simply because someone was a PR I was going to be greeted with courtesy and cultural understanding. Luckily I had my friends with whom I shared everything that happened at the very progressive school, and while smiling they answered, “¡Por favor. El amor y el interés fueron al campo un día y pudo más el interés que el amor que te tenía. Además, no todos los boricuas sonríen todo el tiempo!”  

*"Hay entre nosotros un vínculo muy grande. Nos parecemos mucho. San Juan se parece a Cádiz. … La manera de hablar de ustedes me recuerda mucho a la de Andalucía, no sólo por el tono, sino también por la riqueza del léxico. Esa riqueza idiomática la he encontrado aquí. Es su virtud más fuerte, la poesía del idioma en la invención del vocablo. Y esa virtud la tienen ustedes. Nos parecemos también en la belleza del paisaje, aunque en ustedes se manifiesta más dulce, el tipo de la arquitectura, las flores, en fin, variedad de cosas que me recuerdan a Andalucía a cada momento. En los ojos de las gentes se expresa todo eso. Son como espejos de la belleza exterior. Y, además, por la inteligencia de la gente del pueblo y de los niños que he visto me parece estar en Andalucía."  (Ricardo Gullón, El último Juan Ramón, Ediciones Alfaguara, 1968, pág. 18. en  


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