I have to start with a confession. I once was such a lunatic. At the IDEC in England in 2011 I agreed with the view that it was a mistake to have the 2012 IDEC in Puerto Rico and then the 2013 IDEC in Colorado for precisely this reason. Two US IDECs in a row while other countries had to wait their turn? ‘Unfair,’ I thought.
What changed my mind? Two words. Puerto and Rico.
I have visited the US many times both for work and for pleasure. I have enjoyed every trip to ‘the land of the free’ and find it full of hospitable people from many backgrounds. I have been amazed by the richness and beauty of its enormously varied landscapes. But Puerto Rico is no more part of this than Ireland is part of England (a situation where I have loyalties in both directions). In fact there are many comparisons to be drawn between the two situations it seems to me. Not least that the Irish could only stand tall with their heads held high when they achieved independence from England and both can now be amicable, equal and free members of Europe.
Let’s take the cultures for example. The Celtic culture of the Irish is quite different to that of the Anglo-Saxon/Norman French culture of the English (I do not have space here to consider the complexities of the six counties of the North of Ireland or the positions of Celtic Wales or Scotland, though the latter is steadily moving towards independence if the rise of the Scottish National Party continues.) The languages are different of course but it is much more than this. The Puerto Rican culture is Latin American with strong Spanish but also indigenous roots that make it unique even in this context. It is nothing like anything I have even seen in the US. I watched a playground full of first and second grade children in an elementary school in a poor part of Caguas move instantaneously to the rhythm of salsa music. I know that there is debate as to whether there is a music gene or not but it is hard not to believe in it when you see this kind of rhythmic response. The Irish word ‘craic’ or ‘craich’ or ‘creagh’ just doesn’t translate into English. It means something like ‘having a good time’ and it always involves some spontanaeity and some music. I would bet a $100 that some such word exists in Puerto Rico though I don’t know what it is.
This is not just about music and dance. Puerto Rico also has its own dynamic visual art, literature and poetry that springs from a lightness of heart as it does in Ireland. This has been substantially driven out of England at the grass roots level of the people by industrialisation and the commercialisation of culture as I fear it has in the US also.
Superficially there are things in Puerto Rico that give a US feel to the place. The road signs or the fittings in the hotel bathrooms or the Wendy’s and Wallmarts. But of course these represent an overlay of political and economic domination that do not reflect the reality of the place and the people. Look a little deeper and see the El Pollos or the mercado or the vendors at the roadside or the amazing ‘road of pork restaurants.’
I do not want this to be an anti-American or anti-English piece. I am English and I feel at home in the US. But the Irish part of me came to life in the warmth and spontaneity of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is an ‘enchanted isle’ as every car number plate tells you – as is Ireland. A place where there is a sparkle of love and delight in the eyes of its people which has its own strength and power.
Derry Hannam, April 2012