Puerto Rico:
Music, Tourism and Politics

San Juan and the Casals Festival
Summer, 1982
Roy Lisker

Under the hands of a great master, beneath the lurching arms of a fiery flamboyan , the plaintive ecstasies drawn from his precious Gofriller cello roll out over the green murmuring valleys of distant hills, reaching the faraway sun-soaked bays of Las Croabas and Humacao before vanishing into the air. It is a bright summer afternoon in the late 60's. The cello virtuoso playing outside the little unadorned cottage christened El Pessebre, near Ceiba, Puerto Rico, is none other than the acclaimed maestro,Don Pablo Casals

There is today no cellist beneath these trees . Around the emaciated frame of El Pessebre one sees only relics , clues to past habitation. I walk cautiously, like some intruder on hallowed soil, through the laundry rooms of the abandoned basement. I am not alone; two young boys, Ramon Morales and Jorge Fuentes, follow me about as I slip along a slick of green-blackish mold covering the concrete floor. As we return, through a rotting door half off its hinges, to the glorious Caribbean day, I scuff the oozing slime from the soles of my tattered boots.

We sit down to rest, beneath the shade of the flamboyan . Ramon and Jorge accept my unusual conduct as normal for any Norte Americano audacious enough to want to write about the unique culture of their homeland. Jorge Fuentes is the son of Jorge and Heidi Fuentes, present owners of El Pessebre; Ramon is his friend. At a nearby spot on the ground , where Don Pablo may well have placed his chair when he played outdoors, where he may even have been observed by the thieves who later stole his cello bow , I uncover the bleached jawbone of a cow.

An imposing object, yet also convenient, easy to put in one's backpack while traveling about: a souvenir of El Pessebre. I pick it up and carry it with me down the hill to join the smiling, courteous and hospitable Isaac Delgado. I am staying at his house in Fajardo, his guest for the weekend. My visit had been arranged beforehand by his daughter, Anaisa Delgado, graduate student in microbiology at CCNY. Until Casals's death in 1973, Isaac Delgado was chauffeur to him and his family whenever they stayed at El Pessebre.

During my weeks at a low-priced tourist hotel in the Old City, the cow's jawbone will be subjected to a careful examination. About one foot long. 7 strong chalk -white teeth affixed in the bone template like a row of piano keys. When I shake it, they jiggle like the contents of a jammed desk drawer. Gaping much as it did in the mouth of its bereaved beast, the jaw curves , arching upwards like the prow of a ship, into a beckoning hook . Following along the opposite direction, the bone tapers back gracefully into a nub of scarified bone. There is very little rot on its tarnished calcium. When I grasp it at this end and lift it above my head it makes a hefty weapon.

Originally it had been my intention to offer the cow's jawbone to the Casals Museum. Yet, already this memorial sarcophagus is crammed with relics, including several plaster casts of Pablo Casals' own phalanges! It appears rather to be the destiny of this jawbone to serve as my permanent companion during my bewildering odyssey around the fair Caribbean island of Borinquen , led hither and yon by the bewitching melodies of its invisible Ariel. Merely through Merely glancing at it , I recover my sense of humor: I, too, have a worldly possession!

Under the shrouded windows of the Museo Casals , when the ripening evening, fragile as a blushing flower, begins to roam the Plaza San Jose , the gaslamps pushing forth their first timid sparks, I sit, listening to the conversation of a young couple, tanned representatives of the Puerto Rican version of the frivolous jet set. Their thoughtless chit-chat rises over the Plaza, its' museums and church buildings, its' lonely statue of Ponce de Leon, the alcoholics huddled on its ring of benches. Both man and woman hold Winston's cigarettes in postures both reckless and seductive.

The message on this poster - for they are in fact situated inside a poster holding a picture of the Casals Museum in the background, the total image imprisoned between a pair of floor-to-ceiling glass plates forming a wall of the passenger shelters at all the bus stops of the commercial heart of San Juan - subtly conveys the implication that persons of discriminating taste like to smoke Winston's. Of course: only persons of discriminating taste go to visit the Casals Museum, and all Puerto Ricans of discriminating taste make regular visits to the Casals Museum. At the same time , other elements in this same snapshot seem to suggest that the class of Winston's smokers is in fact universal!

A copy of this poster may be seen from the outside of the bus shelter before the Holiday Inn on San Juan's beachfront Condado Strip. Pressed against it back to back , and facing inside this cubicle is yet another poster: a retouched photograph, an instant frozen in time, the climactic tits and ass panorama of the musical revue "C'est Fantastique! " The show is booked at the Holiday Inn for an extended run.

Which brings us to the inescapable truth about San Juan : everything connects back to tourism.

There is the tourism of the Condado Strip, its bays, beaches and Herculean luxury hotels: Caribe Hilton, Holiday Inn, Ramada Inn, Hyatt Regency, DaVinci, La Concha, Howard Johnson's. The Avenida Ashford, the Condado's main thoroughfare, mixes gift shops, airline offices, pharmacies, hotels and restaurants: exotic Mahgrebian cookery at the Marrakesh , French cuisine at Chez Michele's , plates of chuletas with rice and beans in the local cantinas ; although the standard fare in this part of town is more accurately conveyed from the string of names, Pizza Hut, Arby's, Mr. Donut, The Happy Apple, Steak and Brew.....

Surprisingly it is right here that some of the best bargain restaurants may also be found . The bottomless salad bar of the Pizza Hut is actually quite good at $3.25. The smorgasbord at the Sands Hotel offered 16 refillable Chinese specialties for , every afternoon from 11 to 3, at $3.75. This windfall was indeed too good to be true: the restaurant folded before the end of the summer. One should not forget that the United States destroyed Puerto Rico's agriculture in the 40's, so that consequently island food is of poor quality, expensive, shipped from the mainland to be sold in the concessions of American supermarket chains.

Vice and crime provide the indispensable local color. Little gift for fiction is needed to recognize in the Condado one of those settings where anything can be bought, at a price, or where, at the very least, one can always be certain of finding someone who will offer to sell it to you. Mind you, the Condado is not threatening in the same ways that are Pigalle, or London's Soho, or New York's 42nd Street. The ambiance is that of a seaside resort atmosphere, and there is little danger here for a reasonably cautious individual uninterested in the quest for lurid adventure.

Tourism also sets the tone for all the other business districts of the greater metropolitan region of San Juan: Miramar, Santurce, Hato Rey , and above all the Old City, where the pressure to part with one's money is concentrated to an intensity that is unique . Here again are the hotels, the restaurants, the gift and trinket shops, theaters and cinemas, travel agencies . Together with a monumental cavalcade of banks: strange, yet perhaps not so strange, for a colonial enclave whose citizens, for the most part, don't have two dimes to rub together.

Every craving, sublime or profane, human or (hopefully within reason) animal can be gratified in Old San Juan, sometimes on the same premises: a 24-hour rendezvous hotel for prostitutes stands adjacent to the historic Tapia Theater. All of the large hotels, including the Hotel Central on the Plaza de Armas facing the City Hall, where I lived off and on during my journey of discovery, have similar double functions. Just as they do in downtown Manhattan, culture and lust rub shoulders with greed, : On the Calle Forteleza and the Calle San Sebastian , a few blocks from the Plaza Colon at the entranceway to the Old City, one discovers the Jeweler's Rows .

It is in the midst of such a quaint yet unimpeachably hedonistic ambiance, on the streets surrounding the Hotel Convento, that one finds the cultural storage battery of Puerto Rico, a plateau of civilization and intelligence atop a dungheap of crass commercialism: The San Juan Museum of History and Art, the Center for Folk Arts, the powerful multi-faceted Institute of Puerto Rican culture, the Casals Museum, the Society of Puerto Rican Writers, the Art Students League, and several historical buildings, either restored or in the process of restoration.

It is not typical of tourist traps that one finds such extremes of high and low instruction in them . Las Vegas is not noted for its art museums, concerts or lectures. Nor does the Marlboro Music Festival take pride in its beaches, luxury hotels, 5-star restaurants and brothels. Such explanations as one can offer all begin with the recognition that one has come as a visitor to a captive nation. Captive by history, captive by geography and geo-politics , an island whose situation has, up to the present, ruled out possibilities both of independence or of incorporation into some larger entity, a colony from birth, a colony throughout its history, a land that since the arrival of Christopher Columbus has not known even the briefest interlude of freedom.

Such prolonged deprivation of its political identity has led to Puerto Rico 's heavy investment in its cultural identity. It is only through developing the arts that it has been able to resist the spiritual , and to the extent possible even the economic , takeover of its soul by witless commercialism and foreign imperialism. Culture is Puerto Rico's first line of political defense. The merger of tourism with art will bring us at last into the political arena. On this island, politics and culture are everywhere inseparable

Friday May 28th, 1982: Opening night of the Casals Festival. Crowds mill about on the sequined floor of the lobby on the Centro de Bellas Artes in Santurce , or stand outside before the tall glass panels of its imposing entranceway. Others walk in and out of the foyer of the Sala de Festivales , the largest of several auditoria contained in the center. They wear formal, elegant, even sumptuous attire. Many look as if they'd spent many hours grooming themselves for the ceremonials. It does not have the air of a typical concert-going crowd; a great many people give the impression that they are here only because they feel that it's important that they be seen attending the opening night of the Casals Festival. The prevailing attendance is middle-aged and righteously middle-class. Students appear to be restricted to the sort one finds in faculties of business administration, law, political science. One searches in vain for identifiably artistic types: they have either dressed the part or stayed away.

Tonight' s program will demand very little of its' audience. Schubert's 'Wanderer Fantasy' for solo piano is the only piece likely to interest a sophisticated music- lover. The other works on the program are Mozart's G-minor Piano Quartet, and the Beethoven Triple Concerto for Cello, Piano, Violin and Orchestra: trite fare from the masters. The Puerto Rico Orchestra will be accompanying cellist Lynn Harrell, pianist Andre-Michel Schub and violinist Elmer Oliveira.

The wide convex outer wall of the Sala des Festivales is a single block of polished micaceous granite. In the indentation at its center nestles the sweeping counter of a glitzy bar. The canapes on the table standing in the corner remain untouched, save by yours truly and any other famished journalist. Half a dozen waiters in royalist livery behind the bar move swiftly, eager to relieve the agonies of those , ( and there are so many of them! ) forced to waste an entire evening listening to this music that they neither like nor understand.

Under a rain of bursting flashbulbs, like old college chums huddled together beneath a common umbrella, a group of celebrities located at the left extension of the bar smile to jostling spectators and scattered applause: Luis Ferre , governor of Puerto Rico from 1968 to 1972; Ferre's wife; Martita Casals, now Istomin, the idol's widow; and Pedro Rivera Casiano, Vice-President of the Administration Para el Fomento de las Artes y la Cultura ,( AFAC) , portmanteau bureaucracy for all excursions into the domain of arts and culture.

Casiano looks like a movie director's type-casting of a Latin lover. Martita, who loves all publicity, gushes without embarrassment. She is no longer the 18-year old girl who, 25 years before, married Casals and brought him to Puerto Rico. As director of the J. F. Kennedy Center in Washington her political stock is considerably on the rise. Luis Ferre's wife strikes a convincing pose as the woman behind the throne, though she appears a bit perplexed as there are, at present, no thrones for standing behind.

As for Luis Ferre ... the gaunt and intelligent elder statesman points enthusiastically towards the little poem he wrote and arranged to have chiseled amidst the black sparkles of the Sala de Festivales . Over and over again, like a pious mantra, he babbles in two languages : "Art Is Above Politics!"

Luis Ferre , 1982

Such protestations coming from anyone else might be given some credence. Ferre's own incontestable record puts him squarely in the company of all those who, by protesting too much, merit the censure of Gertrude, Queen of Denmark: to say the least, he doth 'protest too much'. They provide in fact the ultimate confirmation of the all but universal chorus which proclaims that Puerto Rico's art and politics are inseparable.

We have come down, at last, to the cow's jawbone.

" Everything is politics." Jack Delano told me , since the 40's one of the nation's prime movers of music and cinema . Commenting on Ferre's commentary on his own comment , Delano told me that it reminded him of Jimmy Durante's take-off on opera in which he quotes himself over and over again .

Hector Campos-Parsi, Asesor Cultural for AFAC, and Puerto Rico's best- known composer, put it even more graphically: "Politics" , he impressed on me, "permeates even our bathrooms."

Donald Thompson, double-bass player, music critic for the San Juan Star, currently chairman of the Music Department at the University of Puerto Rico in Rio Piedras , put it to me this way:

" Roy, paranoia is the national sport; we've all got to be on our guard against it!"

Cement tycoon, technocrat, pianist, governor of Puerto Rico from 1968 to 1972, possessor of degrees from MIT and the New England Conservatory, Luis Ferre has done everything in his power to link the support, ( and even the programming! ) , for classical music, to his own personal political ambitions. He is also the prime mover of the New Progressive Party , currently in power under the leadership of governor Carlos Romero Barcelo . The NNP is the official party of those who advocate statehood for Puerto Rico within the United States. AFAC is also the creation of Luis Ferre . In tandem with its sub- bureaucracy, the Corporation de Artes de la Representation , (CAR), AFAC runs every government program in the arts, including those in music: the Casals Conservatory ; the Casals Festival ; the Museo Casals ; the Centro de Bellas Artes ; the Children's String Program ; etc. , a conglomeration which is colloquially bound together by a single phrase: The Casals Legacy .

Luis Ferre's years of study at the New England Conservatory were not wasted. His real opinions on the uses of applied classical music in the formation of a political career come out in the many stories told about his term in the governor's office . During the early Casals Festivals , the coteries of musicians who gravitated around Casals, people like Alexander Schneider, Rudolf Serkin, Isidore Cohen and so on, used to get together with him for private chamber music sessions. Sometimes these would be interrupted by a telephone call from Luis Ferre : could he join them? Permission was always granted, and it appears that he is a good pianist. Escorted by a crew from the national television station Ferre would in due time make his appearance. While he was making music with the maestros, the cameras focused on the governor.

Although everyone delights in ridiculing such blatantly self-serving gestures, Ferre also receives much praise for his efforts in promoting the cause of serious music on the island. Perhaps such posturing is simply considered inevitable, unavoidable for a politician on the island where 'politics permeates even its bathrooms'. The militant union organizer, Angel Nater, former president of the San Juan Local of the Musicians Union, currently representative for ASCAP in Puerto Rico, a man with a reputation for intemperate hostility towards all governmental excursions into the arts, confessed to me that:

" Most politicians will tell you that one factory is more important than 10 symphony orchestras. Whatever you might say about him ,Luis Ferre understood the role of good musicians in maintaining the prestige of a nation."

To quote Francis Schwartz, a prominent composer and currently Cultural Activities Director for the University of Puerto Rico:

" Luis Ferre is a well-intentioned art lover who has done a great deal to promote culture during the past half century. Though I personally think he has erred in many ways, his role in Puerto Rico's cultural history is assured. He has consistently promoted the arts."

It is time to return to El Pessebre .

The world appears much simpler when seen from the perspective of this abandoned cottage by Borinquen's eastern shore. Within its' idyllic precincts the 3 leitmotifs of music, tourism and politics find their correlates in the intelligible artifacts of the cello, the flamboyan , and the cow's jawbone. Jorge Fuentes, Ramon Morales and I have spent several afternoon hours exploring its deteriorating rooms . After checking out the basement level, we climb the step ladder connecting the laundry to the first floor corridors. We stride through the dismantled bathrooms, the gutted kitchen, then step out onto the roughshod tan planks of a crude balcony. Pausing, we gaze at the lovely view extending over the hills far away out into the bay. It is not difficult to imagine oneself standing before the serene vistas of Mount Canigou in the Pyrenees, on a porch in the medieval village of Prades in the south of France, where Casals passed his years of exile, where I myself lived for several weeks in the summer of 1969 .

We re-enter the kitchen. On a nail in the opposite wall, surrounded by flaking plaster hangs a curio, lone evidence of past human occupancy : a white ceramic horseshoe. At its center and covered with measles, the horse's head regards us without the least emotion. The barren interior yields no other sign, no remains that might lead us to believe that the famous cellist and world figure Pablo Casals ever set foot in Puerto Rico, that perplexing tropical island where the programming of concerts is a hot political issue.

Patiently seated on a rock at the foot of the hill, Isaac Delgado waits for us much as he did in the days when he drove Pablo Casals and his family around the island. Former chauffeur to Casals, impoverished yet unresigned owner of a publico mini-bus, ( a sturdy van with extended seating capacity ), a man of extraordinary hospitality, Isaac Delgado has inherited the culture of the jibaro , the peasantry of the Puerto Rican hinterland, the salt of the earth, a class which in even the official government-issued tourist guide ( Walking Tours of San Juan , 1981 edition ) , is described as 'kindly, generous and civil, yet poor and uneducated.'

" If one searches back into the earliest chronicles by Spanish visitors to their colony in Puerto Rico, the word 'hospitality' is mentioned time and time again. Esta es su casa , ( this is your house), is the common greeting when a visitor arrives. When two men strike up a friendship and exchange home addresses, it is also common to conclude with a la orden , ( 'at your service'). These courtesies may be mere reflex among some Puerto Ricans, but they are usually sincerely felt. If the visitor has come from afar, the hospitality flows like Niagara." ( Puerto Rico, a Profile, pg. 214, Karl Wagenheim, Praeger, 1974 )

My visit led me to the conclusion that jibaro culture , to which Isaac Delgado is related and still maintains connections, will never be assimilated into the mainland lifestyle of the United States. Statehood may prove to be a real threat to its survival; which does not mean that the option of nationhood is any more viable. Let us examine this claim under the three categories of music, tourism and politics:

MUSIC : All establishment initiatives in music, as AFAC, the Casals Festival and so on, are vicarious transmissions from the mainland. Many could be even described as thinly veiled incursions of the cultural elites of Washington and New York City . Yet every local composer of note, whether classical and popular, returns to the jibaros , the 'chauffeurs of Pablo Casals', rather than to these 'friends of Pablo Casals' for their artistic inspiration.

TOURISM: The famed Puerto Rican hospitality is rooted in jibaro culture. It cannot long survive assimilation into the competitive, money-hungry rat-race of mainland American life. A tropical resort with no tradition of hospitality may possibly survive as some combination of Atlantic City, Coney Island and Fisherman's Wharf, but will hardly be a place that I would ever want to visit. One already sees a prototype phenomenon, in all its splendor, on the Condado Strip. Where I found 90% of my countrymen.

POLITICS: Jibaro culture is anti-technological, fighting industrialization with great obstinacy and often with ingenuity. It was the combination of this with mainland greed that led to the disaster of the essentially ambitious and well-meaning "Operation Bootstrap" program of Luis Marin Munoz . Isaac Delgado drives his publico bus between Fajardo and San Juan, a distance of about 40 miles. Publicos provide the unique form of public transportation around the island. By law, they cannot carry more than 8 paying passengers. In the summer of 1982, the fare for a single one-hour trip of is $2.50. The fare decreases as the bus gets closer to either city.

Since both the fare and the number of passengers are fixed by law, Isaac Delgado cannot make more than $22 per trip, and almost always makes less. From this amount he must pay for the gas, make his regular payments on the bus, which he cannot rent but must buy from the government , cover repairs , insurance and all other expenses. The government regulates everything and underwrites nothing.

In previous decades there were always enough tourists going in a steady stream from San Juan to the resort beaches at Las Croabas and Isaac Delgado was able to make a living as a driver. The tourists have since stopped coming, for reasons unknown to me, and the number of publico drivers far exceeds the demand. Were it not for his wife, Ana Maria Hyland, who works as a registered nurse in the Hospital Gubern in Fajardo, Delgado , who loves driving more than anything else in the world, would have long past been forced into bankruptcy. The tenacity of a poet.

As inept as I am in practical economics I found myself worrying about Delgado's business. For two days he and his wife drove me around Fajardo, visiting brothers, sisters, relatives , friends. At each house I was honored with receptions of feasting, eating and drinking papaya , guanabana , mavi , guarapo , banam , and lechioso , for the first time , as well as locally grown mangos, bananas and plaintains.

During one of these visits I asked Isaac Delgado if he was allowed, or if it would be profitable, to transport produce into San Juan when he wasn't carrying passengers. Yes, he replied, this was a possibility; I should not get the impression that he had not thought about it . Shaking his head with great seriousness, he replied:

"We have always been like this. We never sell our mangoes. We always give them away. Mangoes will never be sold in this part of the world. "

If statehood does comes, Isaac Delgado will never feel comfortable as a citizen of the United States.