This is a fascinating article written by University of Rhode Island’s Carlos G. García-Quijano (associate professor of anthropology and marine affairs) and Hilda Lloréns (assistant professor of anthropology). They focus on Puerto Rico’s ongoing economic and social crisis while underlining the resilience of people who have always had to juggle the realities of scarcity. Here are just a few excerpts; see full article at The Conversation.
[. . .] As cultural anthropologists, we have spent more than a decade studying how people’s everyday lives relate to larger social and economic processes and have documented the negative effects of inequality. In doing so, we have also witnessed people in Puerto Rico who “refuse to play by the rules” of capitalism. Some scholars have even argued that Caribbean peoples are experts at living with and resisting the negative effects of modern capitalism because it was there that one form of capitalism was first tested. Beginning in the 18th century, Caribbean sugar plantations were early models for factory labor management and capitalist trade with the European metropolis.
People on the rural coasts of Puerto Rico are forging good lives without necessarily accumulating material wealth and climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Examining the lives of those who have been “left behind” by the mainstream economy may provide examples of how to live well in troubled times.
[. . .] Working in a salaried full-time job with a single employer can be a good strategy for survival in times of abundance and stability. However, it comes at the expense of reduced flexibility and resiliency under conditions of scarcity and uncertainty. People who are poor and live in rural areas, such as many coastal Puerto Ricans, have long relied on diverse livelihoods and income streams to adapt to prolonged scarcity and uncertainty.
Puerto Ricans occasionally combine formal and informal labor with taking advantage of benefits offered by the state. [. . .] Central to these arrangements is investment in community relationships by gift-giving, bartering and sharing expertise.
In our work, we have documented repeated instances in which people gave away valuable goods, like fresh fish or shellfish, instead of holding on to them or selling them to accrue wealth. A recent study found that more than 90 percent of fishers around Puerto Rico’s southeast coast routinely separate part of their catch for giving to family, friends or neighbors in need. They choose to invest in community relationships and solidarity. This kind of reciprocity occurs in communities where people recognize that their well-being depends on that of others, rather than on undependable labor markets.
[. . .] In Puerto Rico, as in other places such as New England, fishers tend to have relatively low incomes but high cultural significance in their communities. Fishers hold an iconic image as independent workers who engage in an adventurous and arduous lifestyle to provide for their communities. [. . .]
These communities often have centers that organize initiatives for residents such as community gardening, solar power, home improvement workshops and summer camps for about 100 children. In 2016, Carmen, the current president of a community board in Salinas, Puerto Rico, told us about their summer camp: “We charge a monthly five dollar fee per child. We recruit volunteers to offer workshops for the children. We get free breakfast and lunch through the Department of Education. Otherwise, we fund the camp with our own money and donations from local businesses. Members of the community board of directors and parents help staff the camp.” When we asked why she felt that hosting the children’s summer camp is important, Carmen answered: “We are a ‘poor’ community, but when we pool our time and resources we are able to offer the children a good summer camp and teach them good values.”
[. . .] Perhaps it is time to look to people who have been deemed outcasts or “backwards” – Caribbean rural fishers and farmers, mid-Atlantic fishers and pine tar harvesters, Appalachian farmers and coal workers – to understand how they have created rich lives in the margins of the mainstream economy. Perhaps we can apply their strategies for our own survival in these turbulent times.
[Above: AP photo by Ricardo Arduengo.]