Ricardo Alegría: A Pioneering Anthropologist

Puerto Rico is still mourning the death of Ricardo Alegría, esteemed proponent of the island’s national culture. I wanted to share a thoughtful description of this great man’s legacy—“Un antropólogo pionero”—by fellow anthropologist Dr. Jorge Duany. Here is my translation with a link to the original article below.

Ricardo Alegría was the first Puerto Rican to receive a PhD in anthropology in 1954. In addition to multiple administrative roles, Don Ricardo—as everyone knew him—published extensively in the field of anthropology, especially archaeology. His most important works include a pioneering study on the feast of Santiago Apóstol [St. James the Apostle] in Loíza, an elementary textbook on the Taíno Indians, a collection of folk tales, and numerous archeological essays about Puerto Rico and the West Indies.

Despite his nationalist sympathies, Alegría worked closely with the Popular Democratic Party and particularly its leader Luis Muñoz Marín. As the founder of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in 1955, he played a key role in the formulation and implementation of cultural policy of the Free Associated State [Estado Libre Asociado/ELA]. Under his leadership, the Institute identified the dominant version of Puerto Rican culture with the autonomist tradition since the 19th century. Accepting that the Commonwealth was a form of non-colonial association with United States, Alegría argued that Puerto Rican national identity could flourish under the current political situation, although he preferred an independent or associated republic.

Alegría produced many of the ideological premises of official discourse on Puerto Rican identity [puertorriqueñidad] during the 1950s. First, he deployed an anthropological approach to culture, including both its popular and elitist expressions, focused on the intellectual, moral, and spiritual values of the people. Second, he denounced colonial disregard for local customs and their erosion by external influences, especially those from the United States. Thirdly, Alegría defined contemporary Puerto Rican culture as the harmonious integration of indigenous, African, and Spanish traditions before the U.S. invasion of the island in 1898. Finally, he stated that national identity was basically of Hispanic origin, and that vernacular Spanish should be the primary language of instruction both in private and public schools.

In its first 18 years, the Institute implemented Alegría’s perspectives on the aspects of “high culture” (including literature, theatre, plastic arts, concert music, ballet, architecture, and cinema) and popular cultures (including crafts, oral traditions, music, and folkloric dance, and cultural festivals). Along with the Puerto Rican Athenaeum, the state university, and public schools, the Institute became one of the privileged spaces for the production and dissemination of nationalist narratives on history and insular culture. The image of the three “roots” (indigenous, Spanish, and African) are reflected on the official seal of the Institute, designed by Lorenzo Homar. The cult of the Hispanic past, particularly the defense of the Spanish language, became not only a concern of an intellectual minority, but also a project sponsored statewide with a broad impact on the island population.

Alegría was the only professional anthropologist (with the partial exception of Eugenio Fernández Méndez) that held a powerful position in the Government of Puerto Rico. Alegría’s ideas influenced many of the actions of the Commonwealth on national culture, especially on language, folklore, and the arts. Much of the cultural legislation since 1955 promoted the conservation of the cultural heritage of the island through monuments, museums, parks, commemorations, libraries, archives, exhibits, research, publications, and recordings. Many places of historical interest, such as La Fortaleza in San Juan and the Indigenous Ceremonial Center in Utuado, were preserved under his supervision. In 1958, the Institute began an ambitious project of architectural restoration of the historic center of San Juan.

As a result, the Puerto Rican people acquired a greater awareness and pride in their cultural heritage through patriotic celebrations, collective symbols and founding myths, which distinguish a nation. In my view, this was Don Ricardo’s most lasting contribution.

[Many thanks to Ariana Hernández Reguant for bringing this item to our attention.]

For original article (in Spanish), http://www.elnuevodia.com/voz-unantropologopionero-1040636.html

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