• Email
  • Print

In the Life

La Vida

by Oscar Lewis
Random House, 669 pp., $10.00

If historians still exist fifty years from now, one of them might conceivably select two closely related trends as the dominant features of the period through which we are now living. By the 1960s, advanced capitalist society had succeeded, with the help of a prolonged war boom, in absorbing and neutralizing its own industrial proletariat, never in any case a really serious revolutionary threat. Simultaneously, on the other hand, the leading capitalist country had begun to spawn a new, dark-skinned proletariat in the heartland of its own cities and to use its terrifying military power to crush revolutionary uprisings among the wretched of the earth in the far parts of the globe. At the very least this perspective on our own time makes very relevant Oscar Lewis’s latest book, La Vida. Lewis has gradually become the foremost anthropological student of those who are wretched. His phrase, “the culture of poverty,” has become household property in quarters very remote from those of professional social scientists.

In La Vida he presents us with a slice of this culture, mainly in the form of tape-recorded autobiographies of several Puerto Rican individuals drawn from the same family and living in the slums of both San Juan and New York’s Spanish Harlem. Interspersed with the autobiographies are descriptions of characteristic single days in the lives of these people. Both life stories and descriptions have been woven together from huge masses of material, gathered with skill and sensitivity, but the resulting texture may be too smooth. Since much of the book gives the impression that the interviewer did no more than turn on the tape recorder and listen, it falsifies the character of genuine anthropological raw materials. These are always the product of a dialogue in which the personality and skills of the anthropologist play a decisive part. Here the editing conceals the way these elements become part of the raw data. At the same time the presentation in La Vida retains some of the disadvantages of raw material, especially those of bulk and lack of coherent organization.

This semi-raw material takes up nearly seven hundred pages of text, after which it abruptly stops. There is no real interpretation of these seven hundred pages. A fifty-page Introduction provides no more than a very minimal factual background and a very brief general discussion of the concept of “the culture of poverty.” Perhaps the main value of the Introduction lies in the way it reveals the understandable tension between Lewis’s meliorist outlook—his desire to be useful to the established order and its agents, the social workers—and his obvious feeling that nothing short of revolutionary change is likely to help these people, for whom he displays an admirable compassion completely free from condescension.

THUS THE READER must make whatever sense he can of the body of the book. Probably the majority of readers will enjoy the obscenity (as I did), heave a few sighs of compassion, and move on to other concerns. A few others will be able to find within its pages ample material to confirm their prejudices against Puerto Ricans and other inhabitants of the slums. If these are the only effects of La Vida, the author bears a large part of the blame, because he has abdicated his responsibility to his readers. This responsibility, I believe, includes the effort to show the reader what the facts mean, their significance for more general human concerns, such as the character of modern society and theories about how this society arose and the directions it might be taking. Vivid impressions by themselves are no substitute for knowledge. When they reinforce predilections, as they are likely to do if an author fails to point out why the facts exist and what they mean, they can become the enemy of knowledge.

Nevertheless it would be grossly unfair to press these charges to the point of not taking this book seriously. In the first place, Lewis is with good reason dissatisfied with some of the traditional conceptual baggage of social science and is searching for new ways to organize and present important factual materials. Thus in a sense La Vida is an interim report, on which ground I shall refrain from detailed comment on the idea of “a culture of poverty.” Secondly, it does one thing which Lewis wants very much to do, and which is much worth doing: It lets some of the wretched of the earth tell their story in their own words. What would any serious student of human affairs—not just a professional historian—give for equivalent evidence from the mouths of the sans-culottes just before the French Revolution, or of Athenian sailors before they embarked on the expedition to Syracuse!

Finally, these autobiographies can throw much light on an important general problem. From La Vida it is possible to learn how and why large groups of people may be unable to take their fate into their own hands even though they are very miserable. In this connection it seems that Lewis did well to choose the Puerto Ricans, because they represent an extreme case. According to his testimony (which is practically all this reviewer has to go on), Puerto Ricans in general lack a revolutionary tradition. In the body of the book we can watch the daily life of a substantial segment of slum dwellers who, in spite of their obvious seething energy and readiness for violence, are politically inert. Furthermore, it is quite clear that police terror, indeed any form of force majeure, does not provide the explanation.

WHY, THEN, are these people politically inert? Why don’t they try to better their situation by either violent or peaceful means, or some combination of the two? What can one learn from this book about the causes of political inertness that might help us to understand such behavior—and its opposite—among other groups of human beings in similar situations? In trying to answer these questions, too, even if they disappear most of the time, I shall try to enter into the spirit of the book. Doing so means that in looking at these people one must try to perceive what are for them the most important questions in life. As is true of most human beings, the real questions have nothing to do with politics. Yet the way people solve them have enormous political consequences.

The women are the key figures in this slum society. Husbands, whose employment and legal status are liable to be casual and variable, come and go. By the time she is in her early twenties a woman may easily have run through half-a-dozen husbands. When support from the husband fails, the woman turns to taking a lover, perhaps several lovers, or to prostitution. A nineteen-year-old girl, Cruz, boasts that for a time after marriage she had a schedule of three lovers per night with a different cover story for each; they paid the rent when necessary. She had also been an ordinary prostitute and considers “any mother a great woman if she’s willing to give her body to men for her children” (p. 647). In the same vein she is vividly contemptuous of middleclass girls and their sexual practices. Indeed Cruz is the only character in the book who shows some faint signs of developing a counter-morality with which to judge and condemn the prevailing one. Other women may become prostitutes ostensibly for the same reason that an engineer or a professor changes jobs: Cruz’s mother, Fernanda, claims she was getting nowhere and decided to become a whore “to improve my situation.” Nevertheless the feelings about such a choice remain uneasy and ambivalent. A few pages later Fernanda condemns prostitution in moral terms that recall bourgeois morality at the height of competitive capitalism:

To my mind, it’s plain laziness to get under a man for two or three dollars instead of taking a job…Most whores could get other jobs if they wanted to, because everybody has the right to an honest job” (pp. 52, 59).

This remark comes from a woman in the slums of San Juan at a time when 14 percent of the population were unemployed, 15 per cent of all families on relief, 20 per cent the recipients of food allotments (p. xi). Elsewhere throughout the book there is plenty of evidence to show that being in the “gay” life is the opposite of gay and that the women themselves feel its degradation. These women are deeply unhappy. From time to time they are desperately hungry. The gaiety and obscenity are on the surface, a form of defensive whistling in the dark. It is not at all what some middle-class American males like to think it is—uninhibited “healthy” fun, free from taboos and material worries.

The children are the main victims of this social order. Over and over again, the autobiographies complain about abandonment and lack of love in childhood, of having to take to the streets, begging, petty thievery, and, of course, difficulties in school. As the main breadwinners, either as prostitutes or otherwise, the women have to be absent from the house for long periods of time each day or night. During this period they may lock the children into a room, or at times even chain them up. When the women are at home, tired and harassed, living in tiny crowded quarters, the children often exasperate them to the point where they fly into a rage and beat the poor youngsters. One of Fernanda’s other daughters remarks that she never beats her children the way her mother did: “When I beat them I do it in the normal way, with a strap or whatever is handy, but I never cut them or break their heads” (p. 264). Cruz seems to have become a cripple owing to brutal treatment as a child. In her case, as in others, there is the additional factor that, as the women change mates, they may have to take on the responsibility of the new husband’s children by a former union. In the position of stepmothers they are inclined to resent these children, to favor their own and treat the others badly.

To leave the picture at that would be to paint it in too dark colors. Mothers do feel joy in having children because it gives them a sense of purpose in life beyond their own individual existence, perhaps one of the most basic human needs, one that in general men try to fulfill through work. There are many scenes that show touching bursts of affection for children, many cases of women going bitterly hungry for the sake of children, several instances of relatives or friends sending food to one another, even occasional remarks to the effect that at least in San Juan it was always possible to scrounge a meal at somebody’s house.

Nevertheless the essential fact remains that all these cooperative relationships are sporadic and unstable. They have no real pattern, no dependable sanctions. They are not something that people can rely upon, whether among kin or neighbors. In crises when one might most expect slum society to display patterned and sanctioned cooperation, there is often little or none. When Cruz was in severe labor pains at home, her mother abandoned her to go off drinking and her sister also left her. Later the mother returned, half drunk, to take Cruz to the hospital, whence the doctor sent her home because she was not yet ready to give birth. The next day, as the pains got worse, Cruz called across the street to her mother to get a neighbor to help. The mother merely replied that the neighbor was not on speaking terms with Cruz and would not come. Only at this point did Cruz break down and cry (p. 640). Finally the mother did send someone over, who in turn got a midwife who took her back to the hospital.

The feebleness of the patterns of co-operation, rather than the much discussed mother-centered family, strikes me as an essential trait of this slum society, perhaps of any slum society, though that I do not know. At any rate, among puerto Ricans in both San Juan and New York, the consequence is an enormous amount of free aggression directed against other slum members. La Vida is peppered with accounts of fights in which people smash bottles and go after one another. A favorite weapon is the Gem razor blade. The political result is that hostilities dissipate themselves against other slum dwellers instead of being directed outward in violent class warfare or in sublimated and peaceful forms of political conflict. Hence the slum perpetuates itself and even spreads.

There are good grounds for holding that sheer crowding and poverty are not the basic causes of all this violence and correspondingly feeble patterns of cooperation, though they are undoubtedly contributing factors. Lewis mentions in passing that well off Puerto Ricans show many similar characteristics, including the mother-centered family. Many peasant societies are just as poor and the dwellings often just as crowded, but they display much less internal violence and quite stable patterns of cooperation. Especially where the household is the basic unit of production, as it often is among peasants, the need to work together and the habit of working together dampen aggression and help to keep it under control. In the modern city, on the other hand, the household is no longer the unit of production. It is merely the unit that makes consumption legitimate, including the consumption of sex. Unless there is plenty to go around, and often even where there is, dividing up objects to be consumed, again including sexual objects, leads to many more angry explosions than dividing up jobs according to obvious abilities to carry them out.

There are at least two other related reasons for the absence of focused political passion. One is that the outside world does not stand over these people in any clear sense as exploiters, oppressors, or enemies of any sort. Even in New York, relationships with employers are often strikingly friendly and personal. In spite of strong undertones of uneasiness these Puerto Ricans show a surprising willingness to make use of the services of hospitals and social workers. The hostilities that do appear are the characteristic gripes of consumers against stores that overcharge, refuse credit, and the like. The political meaning of the Puerto Rican slum dwellers’ relationship to the world outside the slum becomes clear if one contrasts it to a very different situation with revolutionary consequences, that of the Chinese share-cropping peasant. Such peasants really saw the results of their own hard work disappear into the hands of oppressive landlords and tax gatherers. Therefore Chinese peasants and others like them often develop a really passionate class hatred.

About the strongest sentiment of this kind that I noticed in La Vida was in the way one young woman expressed her admiration and affection for her dead husband, a thief shot when caught in the act. She pictures her late Tavio as a Robin Hood who only robbed the rich, “sons of a great whore,”* and complains about the lack of justice in Puerto Rico. Against this episode one must set the repeated instances in which individuals call upon the police (though there are interesting differences between Spanish Harlem and San Juan), even to the point of having a spouse arrested in order to settle personal quarrels. Feelings of loyalty are so feeble that they sustain no sense of community against outsiders.

The other reason for political inertia is the absence to date of any independent moral code that would enable these slum dwellers to judge and condemn in unequivocal terms the society that surrounds them. Even if the obscenity is vivid, the standards implied and expressed through it are generally conventional ones. Just as men and women of the Middle Ages expressed their hopes and frustrations in religious categories, so do these Puerto Ricans express theirs in sexual language. The content resembles that of bourgeois society. The hopes and fantasies of these poor people revolve mainly around acquiring the outward trappings of respectability. They dream of getting married in a veil and crown, having a bedroom set, “things of good quality,” learning to drive a car so that they can take out the family—in other words a slightly Hispanicized version of American suburbia.

THIS PATHETIC MIRROR of aspirations toward the affluent society and earlier stages of bourgeois history is comprehensible if we consider their situation. These Puerto Ricans, too, are mainly consumers, even if very poor ones, whose link to any form of production that could give meaning and direction to their lives has become very tenuous. (On this score their situation differs from that of the sans-culottes who did have a counter morality, that of petty producers and consumers in opposition to the idle and profligate, even if this counter-morality was warped and vicious.) Indeed the pages of La Vida suggest to me that these slums are essentially the poor man’s version of the affluent society. There is the same fragmentation, meaninglessness, and consequent resort to erotic stimulation, alcohol, or more powerful drugs, the same senseless violence. Naturally there are differences too, but they are not all necessarily in favor of suburbia. Right now the violence of the slum may be less dangerous to human civilization than that of the affluent. Broken bottle tops and razor blades cannot do as much damage as napalm, phosphorus, and hydrogen bombs. If and when these slums do try to organize themselves, they are liable to project their violence outward. Should that happen, we may be sure to hear pleas for gradualism and respect for democratic processes from those quarters of the affluent society that now accept napalm and phosphorus as the proper means of teaching such virtues to the wretched of the earth.

  1. *

    This epithet is trite and diffuse in comparison with the characteristic comment by a Harlem Negro, quoted by Kenneth Clark in Dark Ghetto: “No one with a mop can expect respect from a banker, or an attorney, or men who create jobs, and all you have is a mop. Are you crazy? Whoever heard of integration between a mop and a banker?” On the basis of Dr. Clark’s account it appears that the Negroes in Harlem display far greater political awareness and despair than do their Puerto Rican counterparts. Since the obstacles to political awareness are very similar in both cases, the fate of the Negroes might foreshadow that of the Puerto Ricans.

  • Email
  • Print