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We’re heading back to La Isla Del Encanto for the Christmas holidays. One of my favorite things about traveling back to our place near Playa Salinas on the Caribbean coast of Puerto Rico is the second half of the drive from San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. Heading south through the big city of Caguas, which sits in a remarkably smog-free, but crowded, central valley, the PRI-1 highway climbs the Cordillera, the ridge that divides the island like a dinosaur spine. By then, housing developments, big-box stores, malls and fast-food franchises have given way to lush, deep green mountains dotted by colorful, modest, hand-built farmers’ homes, decorated by palms and the gorgeous red flowers of the flamboyán tree, a national treasure.
Even the climate changes as you gain altitude, getting wetter and more tropical further away from the bright sunshine of Caguas. Once near the top of the ridge, a mist often hangs over the road, or a sharp, short downpour sweeps across soaking the highway.
Coming down the back side of the ridge there is a roadside park dedicated to the jíbaro, the dignified, hardworking, God-fearing, child-rearing, wife-and-mother-loving, country farmer who is our ideal man, Puerto Rico’s cultural hero. The centerpiece of the park is a statue of the jíbaro bearing his ever-present cane-cutting machete hanging from one tired arm, his other wrapped lovingly around the wife and child who are by his side. Even though my father, Cruz, came to live in New York in 1937, he came from a cane-cutting family and he kept the heart and spirit of a jíbaro, always trying his best and lamenting his inability to do more for his family.
The statue always makes me think of dad and his father Juan, my cane-cutting abuelo. Both honorable, hard-working men and the culture they proudly represented again came to mind when a respected antipoverty group, the Community Service Society (CSS), released a devastating report called “Latino Youth in New York City.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau statistics relied on by the CSS researchers, Latinos represent almost a third of the Big Manzana's (Big Apple's) population between ages 16 and 24—more than any other ethnic group. Said differently, one out of every three late teen and young adults in New York is Hispanic. And woe is us: This powerful and distressing report reveals how far from the ethic of the jíbaro we Puerto Ricans have drifted; how shredded is the fabric of our young, inner city brothers’ and sisters’ lives.
Before I give you the CSS report’s specific findings, you don’t need an expert in demography to see the obvious. Caught in a decades-in-the-making culture of dependence, our Puerto Rican population is falling behind our Latino primos (cousins). Because we are born U.S. citizens, we are eligible for long-standing welfare programs that do as much to destroy families and ambition as they do to sustain them.
A drive through Washington Heights or even the traditional Puerto Rican urban heartland of El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, reveals the unavoidable fact that immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Mexico are increasingly becoming the shop keepers and other entrepreneurs. They are providing the economic zest, and the honor students in our public schools.
Because of their often-undocumented immigrant status, these non-Puerto Rican Hispanics cannot sit home and collect Aid to Dependent Children or feed their families with food stamps. Nor can these immigrants afford to heed our professional poverty pimps or our dysfunctional, if not outright corrupt, professional political class that lectures them constantly about their victimization, how it’s not their fault that they’re poor, and how the responsibility for our plight lies with The Man.
Grant the obvious; racism and other forms of discrimination have hurt us grievously over the decades of the Puerto Rican diaspora. Many avenues for social and economic mobility have historically been denied us. But there is also no denying that too many of us have stopped trying to succeed. Here is the grim reality: 17 percent of young Puerto Ricans are neither in school, working or even looking for a job, according to the CSS report. That is almost twice the number of shirkers than the Dominicans (9 percent) or the Mexicans (8 percent) in our midst. It is worth saying it again: Almost one in five Puerto Ricans between the ages of 16 and 24, twice the number of Dominicans and Mexicans that age, are not in school, working or looking for a job. They are home watching telenovelas or they are on the street doing God knows what.
“The people in the culture of poverty have a strong feeling of marginality, of helplessness, of dependency, of not belonging. They are like aliens in their own country, convinced that the existing institutions do not serve their interests and needs. Along with this feeling of powerlessness is a widespread feeling of inferiority, of personal unworthiness,” wrote the famed anthropologist Oscar Lewis in 1998.
That resignation is coupled with the certain knowledge that no matter what we do or don’t do, Tío Sam will take care of us—so why sweat the small stuff, like getting a job or a high school diploma?
Knowing how important education is in order for our children to be able to compete in this rough economy, an especially painful finding of the CSS report is that just 55 percent of our Puerto Rican youngsters are even enrolled in school. Compare that to the 68 percent of Dominicans or the 67 percent of Mexican kids who are in school. Why do we continue to snore during what my friend and mentor Herman Badillo, our first member of Congress, calls our educational siesta?
When the CSS report was published at the end of October, it was largely ignored or minimized by our most prominent politicians. They prefer also to ignore recent indictments of scurrilous crooks like State Senators Pedro Espada and creepy Hiram Monserrat and even our once-revered, now-convicted Surgeon General Antonia Coello Novello. Instead, we bask in the reflected glow of Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s inspirational ascension to the High Court, or the prowess of our star athletes. See how well we’re doing!
I burst with pride when our folks do great things, too. But I am also filled with admiration for the humble, hard-working Puerto Rican dads who take responsibility for children they bring into the world, and encourage them to stay in school and be all they are capable of becoming. The time has come for an end to the cancerous free ride that has emasculated too many of our men, driving them to desert their families so their babys’ mothers can qualify for welfare benefits. The time has come for our congressional delegation to recognize publicly that we bear a large portion of the responsibility for our community’s under-achievement. The time has come to remember the jíbaro.
Geraldo Rivera is a columnist for Fox News Latino.