Ricardo E. Alegría: The Gift of Cultural Self-Awereness

It is a rare man indeed who can significantly alter the mental panoramas and the physical landscapes of a society to the point where there is a definite ‘Before’ and ‘After’ marked by his influence. Rarer still is the man who has had such an effect through a well-orquestrated institutional effort that has engaged the positive action of many artists in all media, and also of intellectuals, archaeologists, architects, planners, artisans and even businessmen who have contributed to his vision with their enthusiastic work.

Such a man is Ricardo E. Alegría.

It would take a book (and even then it might not suffice, as recent experience has proved) to enumerate his many accomplishments. He has founded and directed important institutions, established cultural programs–many of them concretions of a pioneering vision–and has made direct contributions to the arts and to historiography by means of scripts, films, ballets, books, art collections, archaeological excavations and scholarly research. Above all, he has effectively widened the very perception of what is included in the term "Puerto Rican."

At a time when "high" culture on the Island was exclusively preoccupied with a Hispano-centric world view, Alegría began researching the no less strong and diverse African cultural tradition on the Island. His pioneer work in the study of the popular practices related to the celebration in Loiza Aldea of the town’s patron saint, Santiago Apóstol–and of the way such practices had meshed with others derived from Spanish folklore–resulted in a documentary film, "Las fiestas de Santiago Apóstol en Loíza" (1949), that marked the beginning of a scholarly interest in the subject of the cultural richness and diversity associated with the Black presence on the island. Throughout his career, he has sponsored numerous research projects on different aspects of Afro-Caribbean traditions, music and folklore and organized exhibitions on the subject, the latest being a gallery dedicated to "African Heritage" at The Museum of the Americas.

The Island’s first professionally trained anthropologist, Ricardo Alegría made an important archaeological contribution to the knowledge of Puerto Rican prehistory. In numerous digs, which have unearthed splendid relics of pre-Columbian times, he widened the scope of what is now known about the successive waves or cultures of the primitive peoples of Puerto Rico. At the María la Cruz cave in Loíza, he found evidence of the "Archaic" indians, the first who came to Puerto Rico. At a nearby site he also found evidence of the Igneri (or Saladoid) culture, which he named the "Hacienda Grande" phase for the place where he made his discoveries of beautifully decorated ceramic plates and of necklaces made with semi-precious stones. In Caguana, a ceremonial indian park discovered by American archaeologists at the beginning of the twentieth century, he unearthed several plazas which had been overlooked. Through the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture he claimed the site as part of Puerto Rico’s heritage, preserved it and established a museum.

Alegría was one of the first intellectuals to acknowledge the importance of Puerto Rican communities in the United States and their cultural ties to the Island. As early as 1958 he was aware of the need to maintain those ties through education and common artistic ventures. At the end of the sixties, when the first bilingual education programs were created and the first programs of Puerto Rican Studies established, he was not only a consultant in the establishment of Lehman College’s Department of Puerto Rican Studies (he recommended Dr. María Teresa Babín, a noted intellectual and educator, to be its director), but also recognized the need to train the teachers for those programs by bringing them to the Island.

To this end he established a program of Puerto Rican Studies at the Institute which blossomed into a full-fledged, independent academic program capable of conferring graduate degrees. It also served as an alternative for students on the Island who did not receive, in local universities, an adequate knowledge of their own trajectory. This was later to become the Center for Advanced Studies of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, an institution unique for its emphasis on Puerto Rican and regional studies.

But if Ricardo Alegría has deeply influenced the intellectual panoramas of Puerto Ricans, it is no less true that he has transformed the Island’s urban landscape. In 1955 he became the first Executive Director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, founded by the initiative of then Governor Luis Muñoz Marín as a way to counter the accelerated social and economic changes occurring in Puerto Rico with a dose of "serenity" which would come from a renewed appreciation of traditional cultural values. At that time there was no widespread emphasis, neither on the Island nor in the United States, on historical preservation and the renewal of cities. (In Latin America, only Mexico had an ongoing policy of preservation and renovation).

Alegría's father was a member of the Puerto Rico Legislature and had fought during the thirties for the preservation of such monuments as the Tapia Theater and the Christ Chapel in Old San Juan. Fueled by his father’s example, Alegría was intent on using the institutional means now at his disposal to restore the old city of San Juan to the grace and elegance that he remembered from his childhood days. Aided by Puerto Rico Industrial Development Agency chief Teodoro Moscoso, who put up the money for the first four historical buildings that were restored as models, and assessed by a Commission on Historic Monuments which he had created at the Institute, Alegría established an ambitious plan which included the restoration of private residences, the conservation of the architectural character of San Juan and the preservation of historical monuments. Guidelines were established and Alegría succeeded in getting a law passed by which those willing to restore their colonial houses would receive a tax exemption. Public places and public buildings were also restored. Historic monuments were acquired and put to good use. His efforts to have the U.S.Army return several significant sites to the Puerto Rican government–among them El Morro and San Cristóbal fortresses and Casa Blanca, the residence of the first Puerto Rican governors–were ultimately successful. Anybody who lives in Puerto Rico today, and anyone who visits Old San Juan, can enjoy the beauty and dignity of a charming colonial city preserved with taste and respect for its past. Alegría’s efforts did not end with San Juan, however. He initiated a drive to preserve Ponce’s historic zone and was able to save and renovate many significant buildings throughout the island.

Alegría’s cultural projects were numerous. He put in action a widespread plan to promote the arts through painting, graphics and sculpture workshops and exhibitions (Puerto Rico’s notable production of posters was due largely to the Institute’s initiatives) and later through the establishment of a School of Plastic Arts. He also established theater festivals, small thematic museums, promoted ballet companies and created a folkloric dance troupe. Under his direction, the Institute supported editorial and research projects, organized concerts and workshops in which the use of traditional musical instruments was taught, and was active in the commemoration of historical events and figures. A national library and national archives were established in a beautiful, restored building at the outskirts of Old San Juan. An innovative program of popular arts and folklore was especially significant in encouraging an interest in traditional arts which had become nearly extinct. Aware of the dearth of cultural opportunities outside of San Juan, Alegría established a series of Cultural Centers affiliated with the Institute in order that his initiatives could reach all corners of the Island.

Mediating between the higher echelons of political and economic power and individual artists, these institutional efforts were unprecedented within the jurisdiction of the U.S. government. There was no legislation on the arts at the federal level until 1965, when the law that created the National Foundation for the Arts and the Humanities was passed. It is extremely suggestive to dwell on the possible links between Alegría’s efforts and President John F. Kennedy’s interest in that law (passed after his death). In 1961 Kennedy had visited San Juan and had asked Alegría to explain to him how the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture worked. Interestingly enough, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had also visited Puerto Rico at the end of the fifties for a National Governors Conference whose inaugural banquet was held at the Institute’s beautiful headquarters. He was much impressed with the cultural activity generated by the agency. In 1960, while he was governor, the first State Council on the Arts was established in New York.

ew men–in any country–have had the opportunity to exert such a strong and decisive cultural influence as Ricardo Alegría in Puerto Rico. He has considerably widened the cultural self-awareness of the country. His social standing, his education (he obtained his M.A. in Anthropology at the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. at Harvard), his knowledge and wisdom, his interests and efforts have been put at the service of Puerto Rico. He has given us a precious gift.

Carmen Dolores Hernández
Author of Ricardo Alegría Una Vida

Bone carving

4. Bone with carving, 1200 - 1500 A.D.
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico


22. Zemí, ca. 1200 - 1450 AD
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico

Stone dagger

17. Stone Dagger, 1000-1500 A.D.
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico

14. Stone Collar, ca. 1200 - 1450 AD
Taíno Culture, Puerto Rico