Friday, August 30, 2013

CCNY ant the Islands of Enchantment - Islas de los Encantos

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 otherwise, they smile. Though, most Puerto Ricans in New York have not lost this quality, not all have kept smiling when encountering 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.

As opposed to other "Latinos", these faculty members integrated the political situation of these unique colonials with the content, discussions in 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, Piaget, and inclusion without including and multiculturalism without having to face issues of colonialism in your backyard, linguistic and political oppression.

It is not until the late eighties and nineties, when it was convenient for the School to bring Puerto Ricans into the faculty that 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.”

 There was the Dean who continuously asked someone else, usually another non-bilingual, to explain what I had just said; or the internationally recognized constructivist who behaved like a behaviorist, always correcting my accent; or the no Puerto Rican Latinos who could not waste time in telling me that Puerto Ricans were how they were – whatever – because we were colonized. Really? And the “Católica apostólica” de Queens who kept coming into my office to tell me, not to speak about homosexual issues. But of course, bilingual education is not about gender issues. Really?, de nuevo.

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.

I was so happy to work also with "my own people" (Really?, de nuevo) that when I came 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 after I told them the story, 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.”

*"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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