- Concrete and Countryside: The Urban and the Rural in 1950s Puerto Rican Culture by Carmelo Esterrich
As widespread political protests forced the resignation of the governor in Puerto Rico this summer, a certain song generated significant international attention. A trio of the most popular contemporary Puerto Rican artists, Residente, iLe, and Bad Bunny, recorded "Afilando los cuchillos" ("Sharpening the Knives") and released it free on YouTube to coincide with the protests. English and Spanish-language news media and cultural outlets poured attention on the song's vitriolic attacks on the governor, political corruption, and the colonial condition in Puerto Rico. Scholars reached for comment even contextualized the song in the long and robust history of protest music in Latin America. Yet, the song's rural imagery garnered less notice. In addition to the suggestive whistling of the knife sharpener making his neighborhood rounds, a sound and image that harkens to the idea of the countryside in the city, Residente also mentions the children of the canefields (also a reference to another Residente song, "Hijos del Cañaveral"), itself an allusion to the rural origins of an authentic Puerto Rican people. There is also the chorus. In it, iLe sings, "Hay que arrancar la maleza del plantío; pa' que ninguno se aproveche de lo mío" ("We must pull the weeds from around the planting; so that nobody takes advantage of what is mine").
This agrarian refrain amidst the urban beat of a reggaeton/trap collaboration designed to help fuel a largely urban protest movement perfectly encapsulates the rural/urban artistic mashups described in Carmelo Esterrich's suddenly very timely book, Concrete and Countryside: The Urban and the Rural in 1950s Puerto Rican Culture. Esterrich's study examines cultural production in Puerto Rico during the critical decade of the 1950s, the era of Governor Luis Muñoz Marín's ambitious modernizing agenda. Esterrich contextualizes and analyzes the imagery invoked by the era's three signature operations: Operation Bootstrap (industrialization), Operation Commonwealth (reformulating the political relationship with the United States), and Operation Serenity (cultural and social acclimatization to industrialization and a changing island). From this foundation, the author examines cultural production during this period, including all the hope, sorrow, and anxiety elicited by the island's transformation and which accompanied the crowning of the rural jíbaro as the quintessential symbol of an increasingly urban Puerto Rican culture.
Concrete and Countryside rests on a strong theoretical engagement with Raymond Williams' The Country and the City (1973) as well as the Birmingham School of Cultural Studies. In his text, Esterrich deconstructs the city/countryside binary for mid-century Puerto Rico, suggesting "it might be more precise to talk about concrete with countryside: an assemblage of [End Page 470] assemblages in which the rural and the urban appropriate each other, absorb each other, dissipate each, redefine each other" (164). The book's best sections accomplish this task. For example, one of the book's strongest contributions to cultural studies and Latin American cultural history is its sustained analysis of the commercially successful band Cortijo y su combo. Cortijo's music and lyrics offered an "intervention that effectively critiqued the euphoria of modernization" (55). Rather than rural nostalgia or urban dystopia, Cortijo's music revealed a more complex Puerto Rico than any official narrative, one that included specific expressions of race and class and blended elements of the countryside in the city and elements of the city in the countryside. Concrete and Countryside analyzes a wide variety of forms of cultural production – including the popular music of Cortijo alongside avant garde art, theatre, and literature. The book devotes significant attention to some of Puerto Rico's best-known writers of the 1950s, such as José Luis González and René Marqués, situating their work in the broader cultural and political climate of the period. But perhaps Esterrich's most compelling accomplishment, next to his analysis of Cortijo y su combo, is his exploration of the "problem" films produced by the Division...