Icons of National Identity

Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

The desire to forge a national identity began to take shape in the Puerto Rican society of the 18th century. In 1917, when the population of the Island was granted US Citizenship, questions and a serious debate were raised on what constituted the islander identity, forcing in its wake Puerto Rican artists and institutions to play a pivotal role in protecting and continuing to foster the progress and contributions that had been made locally in the fields of science, literature, and the arts; guaranteeing through their safekeeping the perseverance of a national conscience and idiosyncrasies. By the beginning of the 1930’s, efforts spearheaded by individuals and national institutions had given way to the notion of an alma puertorriqueña, or a “Puerto Rican Soul,” through the articulation of a cultural concept shaped by the ideal of the “harmonious” union of the three races: the Spaniards, the Taínos, and Africans. This union gave way to an idealized version of Puerto Rican men and women, known as the jíbaro, a character that encases within it the set of customs, values, and traditions that make up Puerto Rico’s national identity. The jíbaro’s image, aside from being rich in material, historical and artistic value, served as a unifying agent through its heroic and symbolic representation of Puerto Ricans; a quality harnessed frequently throughout the decade in the fight against the notions of inferiority projected onto anything that was perceived as quintessentially Puerto Rican and the excessive or misplaced admiration projected onto everything deemed as foreign. The jíbaro’s historical and artistic symbolism was broadly used as a way to establish a differentiation between the Island and Spain, the United States, Latin America, and even other Caribbean nations.

La Planchadora, Ramón Frade, 1948, From the collection of: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

Through this seminal work,Ramón Frade has gifted us with an iconic image closely linked to the never-ending quest to define a national Puerto Rican identity. The painting depicts a jíbara or a peasant woman in the 1940s Puerto Rico amid her domestic duties. The scene is enriched with the addition of other elements, such as a traditional stone fire pit, the iron, a giant wooden mortar, and a rooster. Simply put, La Planchadora is Frade’s vision of what constitutes a Puerto Rican woman.

Jíbaro Negro, Oscar Colón Delgado, 1941, From the collection of: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

This work by Oscar Colón Delgado exalts the contributions of African Heritage in the efforts to construct a national identity. Colón Delgado portrays his friend Vicente Rivera Bernard, an elderly black field hand, with an expression that exudes both dignity and pride in regards to his deep entrenchment with the land as a source of sustenance, which also evokes a sense of permanence and belonging.

Jíbaro con Azada, Rafael Ríos Rey, From the collection of: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

Through this painting, Ríos Rey honors the image of the humble land worker. He places his subject in the center of the composition, diminishing the presence of industrialism as depicted in the image of a factory, in a move meant to reduce the latter’s importance when compared to working the land. The red sky glowing fiercely in the background makes this scene even more dramatic.

Boceto Para El Velorio, Francisco Oller y Cestero, 1893, From the collection of: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

This work belongs to a series of sketches made by Oller as a study of the characters he would later include in his magnus opus, El Velorio. The artist pays close attention to the mannerisms, postures and facial expressions of the four male figures, who he has chosen intentionally to depict in the apparel that was common among the rural peasants in 19th century Puerto Rico.

Mujer de Barceloneta, Lorenzo Homar, 19th century, From the collection of: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

This engraving by Lorenzo Homar is a masterful approach to the countenance of a working woman set in a rural landscape in the 1950s in Puerto Rico. Her stern expression reflects the hardships she has faced, as well as the dignity of her character. The backdrop that surrounds her evokes a fondness towards the land.

El Vendedor de Chinas, Juan A. Rosado, From the collection of: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

Juan Rosado captures a still of everyday life through his portrait of an elderly man selling his oranges by the side of the road. The man is portrayed dressed in a white long-sleeve jacket and ochre-colored pants while wearing a straw hat. The importance of this work within the framework evidenced through a series of visual narratives tracking the forging of national identity, is in the allusion that the artist tries to convey between the land as a source of nourishment and economic profit, and the concept of the Motherland.

Portafolio: La Estampa Puertorriqueña. Cortador de Caña, Rafael Tufiño Figueroa, 19th century, From the collection of: Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña

Between the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, essentially every aspect of Puerto Rican society revolved around the sugarcane industry. Through their recurring depictions and harnessing as testimonies to the plight of the working class, the images of the machete, the cane cutter and the sugarcane itself evolved and took on the status of indelible symbols of the Island’s identity.

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