28 July 2011

Reading Is Judgmental

Jenius Friend--a Genius himself--Gabo Pagán sent Me a tweet that asked: Why are there are no decent libraries on the island?

Yes, I'm on Tweet Street, as--what else?--@GilTheJenius.

My tweet in reply was: 1) Racism 2) Climate 3) Peer pressure 4) Economics. But mainly racism: gringos didn't think We'd use them. So We didn't.

Allow Me to elaborate.

1) Racism: When the U.S. of part of A. invaded Puerto Rico and took it over, the overwhelming impression they had of Us was that We were "backward," "slow" and "lazy." Just look it up. We didn't speak English (how uncivilized!) and generally didn't work 7-8 hours a day because We were pretty much starving. It's amazing how a body needs to rest when it's consuming muscle tissue to survive.

In some quarters, We were called "dirty," "ignorant" and even "savages." One could say it was merely the tenor of the times, the "Victorian mentality" and whatnot, but the basic theme remains the same: they saw Us as inferior. Much inferior. And that judgment was racist.

Note that the U.S. of part of A. created the widespread library system. No other nation in the world had taken the concept to such a level. It was such a key and successful program that the U.S. of part of A. routinely touted it as a reason for its educational system's success, its economic growth spurt and resulting dominance on the world stage. But despite a few minor efforts, like the Carnegie Library just outside of Old San Juan, that library system didn't get launched here.

Why? Racism, in the sense that gringos thought We wouldn't take advantage of it, since We were, you know, so stupid and all. And a few other factors as well.

2) Climate: The tropical humidity of the Island wreaks havoc with books. Not to mention having to bring loads of books across the ocean, a recoverable investment when selling them (as European books were sold), but a big expense when it comes to just placing them in libraries. Now many rapacious-business-tycoons-cum-philanthropists couldn't have cared less about spending a couple of thousand dollars more to establish a library (Andrew Carnegie, anyone?), but to do so in "Porto Rico"? Well I should think not! And if you doubt Me, how many of those "guilt-reducing, nation-building" libraries do We have? Uh-huh.

3) Peer pressure: The limits of Twitter's 140 characters stunted this one, but there's two parts to this: the first is that there was a broad base of self-interested business and political leaders for whom libraries were seen as trouble and a general feeling in Our population that libraries--and by extension, reading--were (and still are) wastes of time.

The first is easy to grasp: Plantation owners and imperialist governments don't want educated folks because uneducated folks are easier to control...or confuse. To these power-holders, libraries were simply time bombs aimed at them. But in Our culture, forged under the reality of a daily struggle to survive, libraries were unknown and thus useless, or known and rejected as useless, for what could a book do to put food on the table today? Any of Us investing time in school, or worse a library, past a certain age was seen, by Us, as lazy. Or worse, uppity, as in "Wanting to be like the gringos." A similar peer pressure affects black students who strive to do well in school, where they are often accused of "going white."

Why We still have that general reaction to reading is probably the single most disgusting reality I feel about My Island.

4) Economics: Very similar to point three, what with power-holders wanting to keep the population under control and point two with the expense of book shipping, but centered on a specific point: the U.S. of part of A. saw Us as an economic project, not a social one. Yes, there was plenty of rhetoric about "Americanizing" Us and "bringing democracy to Porto Rico", but look at Our history and ask yourself: Were the major actions taken done so for Our benefit, or theirs? 

-- Between 1898 and 1917, they took over nearly every plantation on the Island and controlled every major revenue stream. Congress chided the Interior Department more than once for failing to make a strong effort to improve living conditions and education in Puerto Rico, which had worsened since the takeover.

-- In 1917, Congress granted citizenship to Puerto Ricans...for the World War I draft. No other "benefit" of citizenship was extended except for the right to die for another country.

-- Skip to 1947 when the U.S of part of A. finally decides to ramp up Puerto Rico's economy because it really had no other choice: World War II left foreign production in shambles, so increased U.S.-based production was a competitive advantage and Uncle Sam's top-of-the-pyramid presence on the world stage was slightly embarrassed by its "Poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" stepchild. Further proof: they used Puerto Rico solely as a "low-wage laboratory," instead of a "business development platform." And they agreed to a commonwealth status in 1952 that preserved their economic  interests in exchange for nothing on the political side that could affect those interests.

Conclusion: theirs. Delve deeper and the conclusion becomes a single truth.

And what does this have to do with libraries? We ain't got very many, that's what. Yes, schools "have" them, but they are to mainland libraries what rat is to Kobe beef. Our two largest community libraries are in Guaynabo and Dorado (fairly high on the local income per capita sclaes, I must point out), and both struggle to stay afloat. It's very likely that the only active library on the Island is at Fort Buchanan...because the U.S. of part of A. made libraries a part of every permanent base. Even in Puerto Rico.

Could there be other reasons why We lack libraries? Of course. U.S. of part of A. books were almost exclusively in English, but libraries were often used in mainland foreign-language communities as "nuclei" for English learning. Why not here? [I have to say this again: We are the only fucking nation on the fucking planet that has English for 12 years in schools and doesn't learn the fucking language. Stop anywhere on My Island, speak English and you'll see how many of Us are "bilingual." We're as bilingual as hair is edible.]

And there are reports of thousands of books arriving in Our ports, primarily for schools, that rotted on the docks or in warehouses. (That darn humidity!) Maybe that was Our fault, but it seems to Me that if libraries were built and stocked in Montana, New Mexico, Guam and the Aleutian Islands, then it was because someone from "up North" (or "down South," in the case of the Aleutian Islands) made sure the damn things got completed. Why not here?

Are libraries important? Yes, historically. Their importance is fading as the Internet pervades every piece of hardware We can carry or relate with. But their role as springboards for reading, for exploration, for discovery and learning, for confronting fear and ignorance and moving beyond, for context and perspective, needs to be recognized and preserved. Once We had to go "there" to be in a library; now We simply have to press a few keys. That it is easier to access a library doesn't mean We "have" it, for not using something is actually worse than not having it all.

To be clear, what I'm saying is: We don't have any excuses anymore

The Jenius Has Spoken.

[Update: 17 August 2011: Again from Genius Gabo Pagán, this poster on the value of libraries and librarians. Excellent.]

1 comment:

Apt Posit said...