Cultural Relativism and Self-Determination Views
By Eric Medina
As a child in Puerto Rico goes to school, interacts with his pals, develops into adulthood and ultimately assumes his place in Puerto Rican society, not much will have changed. All he would have seen would have been Puerto Rico, the island, thus, becoming the center of his universe.
As a Puerto Rican child growing up in Ciales, I remember thinking no other place even existed outside that of my Isla. And if it did, surely it was not remotely as good as Puerto Rico. After all, we weren’t called “Rich Port” for nothing. Laugh all you want, but this once child literally thought that our land being called Puerto Rico meant that we were wealthy beyond all measure. As per my logic, didn’t we have to be extremely rich to bear the name Puerto Rico, “Rico” being the key word? Nothing, therefore, was quite as grand as the land of my fathers. I saw vianda and bacalao at the same level as caviar.
In time, I had a vague idea that there was some sort of a world out there. All the same, still nothing was quite Puerto Rico. I was too busy hearing from family members and friends alike of how great we were to even begin to consider acknowledging other places and cultures, all the while growing up with a sort of idea that we were just superior. This became so casual in my upbringing that Dominicans, some of whom lived in the neighborhood when we first moved to Santurce, were never quite as good as us. They talked, dressed, and acted a little funny, a view I picked up from others and carried over to the United States when I first entered the country as a teen. Thankfully, I would grow to see how wrong I was.
You see, ethnocentrism plays a big role for a person being raised in a particular culture, especially one not so polarized. When we’re ethnocentric, we think and behave as if the whole world revolved around our own culture, making us go as far as wondering what the hell could be wrong with people in England that they drive on the “wrong” side of the car or what would make people from India arrange marriages. After all, “don’t they believe in love like we do“? Ethnocentrism, thus, is defined as the tendency to judge other cultures in terms of our own, ethno meaning “people” and centrism meaning “center.” Us at the center is the ultimate idea and result. It was William Graham Sumner, a leading sociologist, who coined the term, and we live and breathe it every day of our lives in ways of which we may not even be aware.
Cultural relativism, in contrast, rests upon the idea that no culture is better than another (only different). The attitude here is that we look at others in terms of their way of life, putting on a type of lens that allows us to appreciate a particular group or society in the same way that an insider would. Cultural relativism, therefore, stands as the counterpart to ethnocentrism, its critical thinking nemesis, if you will. Under this principle, we see it as perfectly normal for people in England to drive on the left side of a vehicle and respect the views of other countries and governments as to what connects their citizens in matrimony. It’s just what they do. It’s a view that makes us part of a larger world instead of at its center.
What Changes for the Puerto Rican who leaves the Island?
A person leaving his homeland to live someplace else goes through a very humbling experience, the first of which is the realization that his culture is only one of many. The Diaspora Puerto Rican, having been exposed to a vast number of different ways of life and cultures once leaving the island, is more likely than the Puerto Rican who stays home to see his culture measured against that of the cultures of his global neighbors. Suddenly, you’re neither as alone nor as special. There are Colombians, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Italians and Chinese to consider as you look to find peace within a much larger and complex community, one whose dynamics are now international.
In the spirit of this, I can’t help but go back in time to the rising levels on my puertorriqueñometer when I first entered high school in the Bronx, as a fellow Boricua classmate asked me where I was from on that very first day in homeroom. And how great it felt to know that I was Puerto Rican, as oppose to anything else. Ecuadorians, Colombians, Hondurans, and Peruvians were all right, but I was Puerto Rican! All my new Boricua classmates came over and celebrated the arrival of yet another one of their own. That was quite an overwhelming experience, providing a profound sense of belonging. I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only jibarito who had drifted too far away from home.
But in the irony of such things and as I would soon learn, the diaspora Puerto Rican, in contrast to those on the island, is the one more likely to have to hear, see or be confronted with how Puerto Rico does not quite enjoy the prestige in the community of nations as do its sovereign counterparts. The island being all he sees, the Isleño does not quite have to contend with such feelings of international inadequacy as does the Puerto Rican who lives abroad and sees the pride and splendor of all other cultures as each celebrates a day of independence. Leave it to Univision and Telemundo, by the way, to remind us all of that.
And so you have the Grito de Lares of 1868, which was organized from New York by exiled Ramon Emeterio Betances and Segundo Ruiz Velvis, the Young Lords and the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional (FALN), born out of the streets of Chicago, along with the more recent efforts made by the diaspora in the organization of protests in favor of freeing Vieques from the U.S. Navy that makes one think of the passion that the diaspora has brought to Puerto Rico’s liberation struggle, a passion that very likely has a connection with looking at the island from the outside in.
But from an environment in which all that exists is ourselves and negative implications brought about by political subordination may not be immediately recognizable, as would be the case within the island, it might be harder to embrace principles of political independence. Our Isleño just doesn’t quite see what those exposed to other cultures are able to see, is not quite as confronted with the existence of other international groups as is his diaspora brother. From within the island everything would seem to run according to the island’s own standards, as would be expected in any society not known for high levels of polarization. Its citizens would most likely go by what’s immediately seen, not so much by global dynamics. What would prompt one, under this scenario, to adopt such a territorial protective stance as would prompt deeper sentiments of national sovereignty? My gospel here is that national pride becomes more pronounced when nation is a factor.
And more so this late in human history, when societies have long since accommodated themselves as sovereign, nation is not as much a factor from within as it is once you’re out, touching foreign land and having other flags and their respective histories pointed right at you. This is where your ethnocentric views run into a solid wall, in our case not only bringing us to the realization that we are not inherently better than anyone, but instead, and given our subordinate political position within the international community, we’re missing a fundamental achievement of which every other nation has been able to accomplish.
Consider the following: the world is arranged along borders that divide entire cultures, each flag representative of a given culture and its history. Within that structural arrangement, nations are aligned equally (Think of a line in which all nations are positioned at the same level). Within this order, there are variations of wealth, education, political policies, power, influence, etc. But all nations agree that there is a respect that is owed a nation based upon its status as a nation alone.
As such, much happens in the world that is less than perfect. Many violations of ethics, morals, and even plain common sense occur every single day as we turn on the news and grab the headlines. Surely countries make war, invade lands, challenge the political and cultural stances of their neighbors and even make nuclear threats as they will. But one thing that does not occur in contemporary times is any nation stepping into the soil of another and planting its own flag.
We now see freedom as too great a value. Respect for the borders of another country, in every bit as respect for the walls and fence of our neighbor’s home, has perhaps become the greatest principle of all, a virtue largely expanded during the Renaissance period and one that points to the right of humanity to defy any limit on its everlasting path to greatness. Thus, it would seem that to refuse freedom to ourselves would be to reject our very selves. And as much as we Puerto Ricans have tried to mask our subordinate political status in an effort to make it appear as less undignified, the reality of the importance that freedom has around the world keeps staring right at us.
And so it is in the midst of all this that we Puerto Ricans have, for a long time, wanted to have our cake and eat, too. We want international recognition without international accountability, to be perceived as free while deferring to others, to continue to look at Puerto Rico as “patria” while calling for it to become a mere state of someone else’s. It is here that it becomes inherently harder for the Isleño, as a result of not being quite as exposed as the Diaspora Puerto Rican to the clearly set and inflexible boundaries of the international community, to see that a world divided by distinct histories, martyrs, borders and Independence Day celebrations calls for an “either or” commitment on the part of those who would aspire to cement a place at the highest level of international positioning. Thus, a member of a nation, regardless of where he or she might be, remains a member of a nation! And they will never, as much as they might show great diplomacy in their interactions with people coming from regions with a lesser international status, show the degree of respect they would to folks hailing from sister nations.
But the cultural relativist in the Puerto Rican is often better able to see clearly. He is the one who steps into the great beyond, facing the discrimination that plagues those who take part in this grand social stratification system of nations that constitutes the globe. I myself never heard the words, “you don’t even have a flag” while growing up in the carefree environment of Puerto Rico. All I cared about then was whether they were going to serve fried chicken for lunch at my middle School Manuel Cuevas Bacener. I surely became more patriota when arriving here. It made sense. Everyone else around displayed their pride of their own patria.
So there lies the true challenge of the Puerto Rican who wants to see Puerto Rico finally libre. There needs to be a re-education of the masses, one of which won’t likely happen overnight. He would first have to be patient, as he allows himself to see the issue of independence from an angle of those who not only were initially socialized into resisting it but made to grow comfortable with the idea of political subordination to the point of not even seeing political subordination as an existing factor. He would have to expose Puerto Ricans to the reality of all we have been missing in our absence as a nation and expect the learning process to be slow, showing sensitivity to all the cultural and emotional damage that has been done to the Puerto Rican over the years. He would have to be empathetic, visionary, patient, articulate, clear-minded and unyieldingly consistent. But most importantly, he would have to be all these things in such a way as to help him connect the diaspora Puerto Rican with the Isleño, the latter being more prone to ethnocentrism and therefore less likely to visualize us out there as a mere spec in the globe, hungering for the equality that every other society has.
So let us begin to see things as they truly are. Puerto Rico’s status as a territory of the United States is morally, ethically and fundamentally wrong. That is the first thing with which Puerto Rico needs to come to terms. Puerto Rico is too great a culture not to be free to grow as it will, to take its chances and reap the rewards as well as learn from its setbacks. Freedom is a dignity owed to all living things. Every person, creature, in fact, every earthly element, gravitates towards freedom. Insofar as this is true, in every struggle that every Puerto Rican faces out there is reflected a universal standard that we keep violating. A Puerto Rican facing an emotional challenge is surely facing a cultural one before all else. He is a member of a society walking on the opposite direction of every other when it comes to a fundamental cultural value. And how long can any society stand as an outcast of such important matters before facing cultural extinction?
A time for heroes in the Puerto Rican community is calling. Is the challenge grand? Yes! Is it a tall order that Puerto Rico will rise to the occasion and claim its rightful place in the community of nations this late in the history of the world? It might very well be. But is it impossible? I say not! As much as it would certainly be a unique moment in history and our culture is bleeding now perhaps more than it ever has, anyone is capable of greatness. And I say why not us? Why can’t the Puerto Rican be that pueblo to achieve what would probably go down as the greatest cultural feat of all time, to overcome a culturally dependent mindset after all these years of political reliance?
Our Tainos gave us the name of Boriken, which means Land of the Valiant Lord. In a world where an understanding of cultural relativism as the greatest measure of cultural respect has become a common international standard, possibly waking us to the still lingering struggles of the unfree, struggles that are made all the more complex by an ethnocentric mindset, let us Puerto Ricans get to work to position ourselves in such a place in the international community as to at least be counted, then onwards to being respected and further on to being revered. But we must first become a nation.
Eric Medina is a doctoral candidate in public administration at Walden University and has worked as an adjunct professor of sociology at Hostos Community College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Your Editor Responds: We have heard you and will pay more attention to Borinquen and its diáspora