Box 22, Folder 17, Document 12

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Box 22, Folder 17, Document 12

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LA Nir. A Puerto Rican Family in the
Culture of Poyerty—San Juan and New
York. By Oscar Lewis. 659 pp. New York:
Random House. $10.


~~ ¢¢] A VIDA" is unquestionably one

of the most important books

published in the United States
this year. It is a shattering account
of three generations of the Rios fam-
ily in the slums of San Juan and the
Puerto Rican enclaves of New York.
Much of it is told in the tape-recorded.
words of the subjects themselves. The
book is in large part, as Oscar Lewis
says, “a picture of family disruption,
violence, brutality, cheapness of life,
lack of love, lack of education, lack
of medical facilities—in short, a pic-
ture of incredible deprivation the ef-
fects of which cannot be wiped out
_ ina single gencration, This Zolaesque
reality emerges from a Puerto Rican
society in which the island average
income per person rose from $120 to
$740 between 1940 and 1963.

The casual, matter- of-fact descrip-
tions of social hel] that abound in
“La Vida" are somctimes so appalling
that the middle-class reader ‘is in
danger of being overwhelmed. How,
exactly, dees he assimilate to his ex-
perience the reminiscence of a crip-
pled child who tells of having played
the “game” of prostitution? But then
three of the major characters in this
book actually worked at the profes-
sion for a period, and one mother
entertains her children by singing:
“dirty” songs. More conventionally,
yet still not quite what the middle-
class reader is used to, the five central
figures of “‘La Vida" have already had
a total of 20 marriages (17 of them
consensual unions, 3 of them legal)
and they are clearly not done yet.

Nevertheless, in a probing introduc-
tion Lewis argues that there are in

_ these lower depths certain strengths.
There is a fortitude and resilience in
the Rios family, and its members are
capable of great kindness despite the
brutality of their circumstances.
“Money and material possessions,” he
writes, “although important, do not
motivate their major decisions. Their
deepest need is for love, and their

MR. HARRINGTON is the auther of “The
Other America” and “The Accidental

u/2e 66

life is a relentless search for it.” In
analyzing this coexistence of the
pathological and the healthy, Lewis
gives considerable precision to a term
that he originated: the “culture of
poverty.” And he provides some im-
portant theoretical insights of con-
siderable relevance to some of the
political debates going on in America
f° Essentially what Lewis does is to
incorporate two of the most popular
oversimplifications about the poor
into a complex idea. On the one nand,
there is the belief that the impover-
ished have been spared the corrup-
tions of affluence and are therefore
a potential source of social regenera-
tion. The extreme version of this
thesis Is the idealization by Frantz
Fanon (author of “The Wretched of
the Barth”) of the “people of the
shanty towns” as the creative and
revolutionary force of the second half
of the century. In American terms,
the Black Power ideologists are mak-
ing a similar claim for the victimized
inhabitants of the Negro ghetto. And
on the other hand, there is the view
that poverty holds only degradation.
The compassionate partisans of this
view believe that they must help the
passive and defeated poor who can-
not help themselves, while the reac-
tionaries believe that the slum dwell-
ers “got that way” because they
wanted to and lacked Goldwaterite
Usitines of thrift and enterprise.
” Lewis's definition of the culture of
poverty reveals the half-truths and
large falschoods behind these contra-
dictory myths. Those who dwell in
this subculture do not “belong” to
any of the institutions of the larger
society. Unemployment and under-
employment make them marginal in
the labor market; they do not join
political parties; they spend rather
than save, and pay more for inferior
merchandise since they do not have
access to cheap credit and don’t shop
in supermarkets; and so on. Now
there are, and have been,-poor people
who did “belong.” There are prim-
itive and utterly impoverished tribes
which nevertheless possess an inte-
grated and self-sufficient culture. And
various American immigrant groups,
most notably the Eastern European
Jews, came to this country with in-
tact traditions that protected them
from the extreme social and spiritual
| consequences of being poor.



Thus, Lewis’s culture of poverty
is a very specific and unique phe-
nomenon. It occurs in societies in
which the cash economy and rapid
change subvert the old ways and a
group is left behind without either
money or even 2 hungry solidarity.

People inhabiting the culture of
poverty, then, are “out of it,” and
their life is the experience of a dis-
integration. This is the profoundly
gative side of being poor (Gunnar


Myrdal was thinking along these lines
when he said that the underclass of
the affluent society is a “non-revolu-
tionary proletariat”), and it will dis-
appoint all the romantic expectations
from Fanon to Black Power and back.
And yet, as Lewis emphasizes, the
very absence of regular institutions
within the culture of poverty forces
the people to create their own asso-
ciations and values, in order to sur-
vive. The (Continued on Page 92)





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problem is, the middle-class
visitor from the Mars of the
Jarger society will often not
recognize this social ingenuity,
even when he comes face to
face with it.

For example, the marriage
patterns — or more precisely,
the endless succession of con-
sensual unions—in the Rios
family will strike most readers:
as chaotic. Yet the men, with-
out jobs, income or property to
pass on to their offspring, see
no point in getting involved in
legal entanglements. And the
women fear being tied to men
who are often immature and un-
reliable—and by refusing to give
the fathers of their children the

legal status of husbands, they.

maintain a stronger claim on
the children if the couple sepa-
rates. From the point of view of
the slum there is a very real
logic here; it is barely apparent,
thench to the outs'der who has
never had to cope with the kinds
of problems which confront the
Rios family every day.

It is from this vantage point.
that Lewis can see the nelgh-
borhood gang as a “consider-
able advance” over the more
ravaging despairs and anomie
that can be found in the cul-
ture of poverty. One remembers
the fearful case in point that


Kenneth Clark has described:
in Harlem in the 1950’s when
the police succeeded in break-
ing up the violent gangs, that
moment was the start of the
narcotics plague. The comfort-
able white could not under-
stand that the gangs were a
social invention as well as a
Police problem. Their destruc-
tion created a:vacuum that was
partly filled by heroin.

f In any case, Lewis is quite
right to understand the culture
of poverty as a dialectic of
strength and weakness in which
the desperate need to survive
simultaneously brutalizes and
provokes a certain dignity into
life. If these people are not a
fount of revolutionary purity,
neither are they an inert mass
to be manipulated, “social-engi-
neered” or nightsticked for
their own good. For when po-

“litical and social hope pene-
trates down into the culture
of poverty, as happened with
the Southern Negro during the
last decade, the latent nobility
surfaces, and, if it cannot

transform modern society, it.

still makes a disproportionate
contribution to social change
and the common goood.

I have, to be sure, some ques-
tions and reservations about
aspects of Lewis’s discussion. I

. think that the number of Amer-

icans who live in the culture
of poverty, and are poor, is

greater than his estimate; I
would not refer to the bureau-
cratic, collectivist system of
Communism as “socialism”; I do
not think that there is a “so-
cial-work solution” to poverty
in America any more than in
the Third World. But I have
concentrated on my agreements
with Lewis (which far out-
weigh the disagreements any-
way) because I think “La
Vida” is one more brilliant
demonstration of the validity
and profundity of the method
Lewis has pioneered: the me-
ticulous description, and tape-
recorded self-depiction, of the
daily life of a single yet arche-
typical family of the poor.
And finally, for all of the
great interest of Lewis’s iniro-
duction, the emotional force of
“La Vida" comes, of course.
from the Rios family itself.
The poor, I have long felt,
needed a novelist more than
a statisticlan—and Lewis has
proved once again that perhaps
they are their own best novel-

ists. The Rios family makes .

the dialectical concept of the
culture of poverty unbearably
real; the world which they de-
scribe is intolerable and their
reminiscences should move a
stone to tears. Yet they have
not been overwhelmed; they
have a capacity to act on their
own behalf that demands lib-
eration, not noblesse oblige.

en ows ae re ee ee


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