Puerto Ricans and Sentimentality


I suppose if one were to total up the comments of Stanley Plastrik in his review of my book, Island in the City, [DISSENT, Spring 1959], the scales would be slightly more weighted on the “favorable” than the “unfavorable” side. A victory for me by close decision, if not a knockout. But still the whole thing depresses me, and not because of its “favorable” or “unfavorable” aspects. It depresses me because it exhibits exactly the kind of “approach to the problem” on the part of right-thinking, well-meaning men that the book, in its highest purpose, was designed to destroy. Mr. Plastrik begins by saying that I have written a “fine human document,” and I suppose that’s an inevitable label for a book on such a subject, even though no man in his right mind would want to read a “human document.” He then quickly says that “It is a little on the sentimental side … but never mind … Wakefield can easily be forgiven a tendency to overplay his hand; the reader’s common sense will redress the balance.” God help us, I am sure that Plastrik is right. The reader who might begin to feel some emotion, some guilt, some disturbance at his lack of connection or understanding of these people [the Puerto Ricans in New York City], some relationship to them as human beings, need have no fear that he will be moved anywhere near the region of the gut rather than the brain: his common sense will redress the balance. His common sense tells him that the answers are to be found in more sober sources—statistics, graphs, interaction studies. Let us hold a conference, establish a foundation, offer grants for further study “in the field.”

Plastrik says that there are a number of problems about the Puerto Ricans that do present difficulties. Quite true, But he doesn’t mention one of the main, recurrent themes of the book—that most of the difficulties we have come to know as “Puerto Rican problems” are problems that were already a part of our own society and that the migrants have inherited from us when they came to New York. But those problems, which I talk about specifically, Plastrik doesn’t go into. He says the major problem is one I do not discuss:

“The interaction between Puerto Rican culture with that of postwar America is different from all previous relationships between immigrant groups and the host culture of the U.S. Is it because this is the first instance of a preindustrial minority group having to enter our ‘mass society’?”