Legitimacy must be clothed in magic; words must be made into things; blocks,
hedges, compartments are the condition of knowledge. Thinkers must recognize
the destructive lure of the natural system of symbols, equally when it devastates
category boundaries as when it wrongfully closes them.
Beware, therefore, of arguments couched in the bodily medium.
-Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols
The mottled past still haunts Puerto Rico. Of course, you might not realize
it if you visit only the center of such cities as Ponce, the second-largest
metropolitan area on the island, with its carefully groomed plaza; shining
marble sidewalks; genteelly pastel, reconstructed mansions of long-dead
sugar barons; modern, mall-like shops; and burgeoning set of museums,
which celebrate the accomplishments of the city's wealthy and powerful. Bur
if you listen closely and visit the places in the city that have not been razed
and scrubbed and remade by the recent tourist-oriented urban renewal, you
can hear a cacophony of histories, carefully cleansed from the urban center.
In such working-class Ponce neighborhoods as Belgica, La Cantera, and
San Anton, the marble sidewalks abruptly halt, giving way to crumbled
cement and dirt. Salsa music blares alongside occasional evening invocations
of the older rhythms and lyrics of bombas and plenas. Light skin tones deepen
into cinnamon and mahogany. In Don Cesar's crowded lunch joint, over a
huge plate of rice and beans and octopus salad, you can hear reminiscences
ofloves won and lost during bomba dances, bitter memories of cane cutting
and desperate, gnawing hunger, and proud invocations of the mulattos who
founded local unions, the Ponce Firemen's Corp, and the city's musical bands.
Elderly women on their porches offer stories of supporting children by sew-
ing and washing for others, seeking a loving mate, and combating male
infidelity. Even within the homes of the sugar elite's descendants, where
wrinkled white women recall the glorious days gone by of multiple houses,
servants, and demure carriage rides to church, the cleaning women slip
in their own memories, which complicate the homogenizing narrative of
Ponce's grandeur and lily-white moral decency. They remind the questioner