Reimagining American Community

Puerto-Rican-Day-Parade_V1The Puerto Rican Day parade is second only to the St. Patrick’s Day parade as the biggest privately sponsored public event in New York City.

One of the earliest expressions of what would come to be known as identity politics, the parade achieved its current prominence in the Puerto Rican community only after supplanting one of the last successful attempts to revive an earlier cultural tradition, that of the fiestas patronales, or the patron saint’s day festival. The story of that transition reflects in microcosm the imposition of a rationalized modern existence on formerly tradition-minded American ethnic minorities.

During the 1950s, the Catholic Archdiocese of New York attempted to reach out to the Puerto Rican immigrants who flooded New York as part of the Great Migration by inaugurating a Fiesta de San Juan in honor of the patron saint of Puerto Rico, St. John the Baptist. The mastermind behind this missionary tactic was Ivan Illich, a Catholic priest who would later gain fame in secular circles for his radical critique of modern capitalist society. Illich saw his countercultural star fade in the late 1970s when the traditionalist basis of his critique of modernity became more apparent. But for those who refuse to accept the nostalgia police’s equation of tradition with fascism, Illich’s early career offers a genuine model for a politics of carnival, one in which symbol, myth, and ritual serve less as tools of resistance than as the vocabulary of an alternative way of life.

Father Ivan Illich arrived in New York City in 1951. Born in Vienna in 1926 to a minor Dalmatian Catholic noble and a Jewish mother, and educated in the highest European tradition, Illich was hardly an immigrant priest in the typical nineteenth-century mold.

Still, Illich came of age intellectually at a time in the Church when academic training was more likely to reinforce than subvert orthodoxy. At the University of Salzburg, where he received a doctorate in the philosophy of history, Illich was profoundly shaped by the triumphant medievalism that served as the Church’s official response to modernity in the years prior to the Second Vatican Council. But his study of the history of liturgy led him to develop his own particular view of Catholic antimodernism. Anticipating the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, Illich came to see the decline of ritual—not the moral (i.e., sexual) laxity routinely cited by the clergy in the preconciliar American Church—as the greatest threat to the survival of the faith in the modern world.

Cosmopolitan, urbane, and theologically orthodox, in Rome Illich found himself being groomed for service in the Vatican diplomatic corps. He decided instead to go to New York City. Stories circulated that he went to New York on a dare from the American seminarians; for all his intelligence and erudition, they teased, Illich would never survive in a tough, urban American parish. Illich himself later insisted that he came to America primarily to flee a career in the Vatican bureaucracy. In 1951, while studying in Rome, he received an invitation to postdoctoral study in medieval philosophy at Princeton University.

As a condition for the freedom to pursue his studies, Illich accepted an assignment to Incarnation parish, a historically Irish-American enclave in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. Illich quickly discovered that his assignment had placed him at the center of the single most significant ethno-demographic upheaval in postwar America: the massive influx of Puerto Rican immigrants into New York that would come to be known as the Great Migration. Between 1946 and 1964 over half a million Puerto Ricans came to New York.

But while the American clergy tried to incorporate Puerto Ricans into the Church according to models of assimilation developed through the pastoral care of earlier European immigrant groups, Illich looked to the indigenous traditions of Puerto Rican Catholicism as the basis for an alternative not simply to Americanization, but to modernization in general.

The firmly ensconced Irish, not the newly arrived Puerto Ricans, presented Illich with his initial pastoral challenge. “Ivan sounds Communist, we’ll call you Johnny”: thus declared Monsignor Casey, pastor of Incarnation, upon meeting his new priest. “What in heck did you come here for?” asked his parish colleague Father Joseph Connolly. For centuries, people of Illich’s class have sought spiritual redemption by serving the poor; few have sought it by working for the lower middle class. Most men of Illich’s breeding would have been hard pressed to imagine a spiritual fate worse than submitting to the authority of the grandsons of the famine Irish; fortunately, Illich was not like most men.

Personally charming and extremely adaptable to unfamiliar surroundings, Illich quickly overcame the suspicions of his fellow parish priests. Indeed, whereas French missionaries in nineteenth-century America looked down on the Irish, Illich envied their impeccably working-class roots. Connolly had grown up in Hell’s Kitchen and left school after the fifth grade to work in a slaughterhouse. Illich once turned and confessed to him: “I wish like you I had been a slaughterhouse butcher, because I could be closer to the other priests.” Connolly answered: “You were not cast for the role of shepherd, but for empire.” In Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, Illich found the most powerful empire-builder in American Catholicism.

At first glance, Spellman and Illich would appear the strangest of bedfellows. Spellman, the archconservative anticommunist whom some have accused of personally engineering the Vietnam War; Illich, the left intellectual who would later criticize the Marxist-inspired liberation theology movement for being insufficiently radical. Illich nevertheless came to New York highly recommended by Spellman’s contacts in Rome, and Spellman saw Illich’s Vatican connections as a way to expand his own power and influence. Illich was, moreover, impeccably orthodox in his theological orientation.

Personally ascetic, committed to traditional devotions such as the rosary, he impressed and intimidated his more easy-going Irish-American colleagues. Connolly, for one, feared his zeal was inspiring too many women to join the sisterhood: “Lay off that stuff,” he would tell Illich, “You’re pushing them in.”

Still, Illich would perform his most valuable service to Spellman less through his theological rigor than through his simple ability to master Spanish. When Spellman was not preaching the need to protect Catholics from communist oppression in the Third World, he focused his energy on the plight of Third World Catholics in America. In New York during the 1950s, Puerto Ricans provided the most visible face of the Third World; in America, the danger was not communism, but modernism understood as a synthesis of secularism, materialism, and of course, cultural Protestantism. The shared antimodernist inclinations of Spellman and Illich obscured serious ideological differences, but they proved sufficient for Spellman to place Illich in charge of the Puerto Rican apostolate.

The Puerto Ricans presented a special challenge to the Church. The earlier model of Catholic Americanization succeeded largely because immigration restrictions drastically reduced the contact ethnic Catholics had with their culture of origin. In contrast, Puerto Ricans were American citizens with access to cheap air travel, which enabled them to move freely back and forth between Puerto Rico and America. They were therefore able to maintain their ties to their native cultural traditions. Spellman’s initial efforts to Americanize Puerto Rican Catholics had been perfectly consistent with the integrationist ethos of the emerging civil rights movement; however, while African Americans conceived their struggle as an effort to reclaim a four-hundred-year-old birthright, Puerto Ricans saw America primarily as a place to work and had no particular interest in assimilating into American culture, or even into the American Catholic subculture.

Spellman’s initial efforts at outreach, including his attempt to have the Irish-American sons of hog butchers learn Spanish, were stymied by an inability to recognize or accept this cultural reality. Nonetheless, by the early 1950s Spellman realized the need for a new strategy.

Illich came to this situation with several advantages over his Irish-American counterparts. First, and perhaps most important, he was able to learn Spanish quickly. His education and cosmopolitan upbringing certainly helped in this effort, but so too did his general ease with and openness to people different from himself. After quickly mastering the Berlitz Spanish-language program that Monsignor Casey had struggled with in vain for years, Illich took to mastering Spanish by standing on street corners and asking questions of Puerto Ricans he would encounter in Washington Heights.

Second, Illich understood that effective ministry required a commitment not simply to help the poor, but to be poor. To help break down the physical distance between the institutional Church and its Puerto Rican congregation, Illich rented an apartment in a tenement and turned it into El Cuartito de Maria (The Little House of Mary).

As a service project, El Cuartito provided free child-care for the women of the tenement, but Illich saw the primary purpose of the apartment as the establishment of a neighborly presence for the Church in the Puerto Rican community.

For Illich, ministry to Puerto Ricans required a complete surrender of one’s own cultural values. He understood this surrender in explicitly Christian terms, equating it with the surrender of the will that precedes the reception of grace in traditional Christian theology. Although he was familiar with modern social theory, Illich nonetheless understood this surrender of cultural assumptions not in terms of objectivity or tolerance, but as “a beatitude of cultural poverty.” Illich spent vacations in Puerto Rico, walking and hitchhiking across the country, performing priestly duties and soaking up the peasant culture of the people; he became convinced that the future vitality of Puerto Rican Catholicism depended on the maintenance of Puerto Rican cultural traditions.

One commentator on Illich has claimed that “if he had had his way he would have totally transferred the church of the campesinos, with its unpunctuality, its semi-pagan rituals, its great community feast days, to the streets of New York.” The appeal to tradition provided Illich with a language through which to subvert Spellman’s Americanization goals without appearing subversive.

Unable to transfer the culture whole, Illich began with a part. In 1955, he organized a Fiesta de San Juan to serve as a day for Puerto Rican Catholics to celebrate their religious and cultural heritage. Naming the event after the patron saint of Puerto Rico, Illich conceived of the celebration on the model of traditional fiestas patronales, which freely mixed religious processions and a solemn high mass with picnicking, card playing, music, dance, and theatre. If the Irish could have St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, Illich reasoned, the Puerto Ricans should have St. John’s Day on June 24. Spellman could hardly argue with that logic, so he agreed to allow the use of the great quadrangle at Fordham University for the event—with himself as the guest of honor. Illich took charge of promotional efforts, placing ads in Spanish-language newspapers and eliciting support from slick Madison Avenue executives.

On June 23, the eve of the feast, the police estimated they would need officers to control a crowd of about 5,000; the next day, 35,000 people descended on Fordham for a celebration of ethnic cultural identity unprecedented in postwar America.

The success of the fiesta convinced Spellman that Illich was the man to take control of the Church’s ministry not simply to Puerto Ricans in New York, but to Catholics throughout Latin America. In 1956, Spellman loaned out Illich to the Diocese of Ponce to serve as Vice Rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Illich was to oversee the creation of an Institute of Missionary Formation, the goal of which was to train American priests in Latin American cultures so as to serve Latinos better in America and in their home countries.

In 1959, the institute changed its name to the Institute of Intercultural Communication. Incorporated in the state of New York, the institute remained housed at the University of Puerto Rico, yet operated largely to serve the needs of the archdiocese of New York. Each year Spellman would send half his ordination class to the institute for training.

Despite the financial and moral support of Spellman, Illich’s time in Puerto Rico was short. His overtures to Puerto Rico’s leading secular political party brought him into conflict with local Church authorities. In the fall of 1960, the Irish-American bishop of Puerto Rico James McManus ordered him off the island.

Even more distressing, Illich began to see his theory of intercultural communication fall before the institutional inertia of Americanization. Catholic missionaries continued to try to export the American urban parish model, complete with brick rectories and parish schools, to the slums of Latin America. And so with the continuing support of Cardinal Spellman, Illich searched for a new base of operations. Drawn by good weather and a liberal bishop, he gravitated to Cuernavaca, Mexico.

In the spring of 1961, Illich introduced himself to Bishop Sergio Mendez Arceo with the pronouncement: “I would like to start, under your auspices, a center of de-Yankeefication.” Bishop Mendez Arceo enthusiastically embraced Illich’s project, which would become the “Center of Intercultural Documentation,” or CIDOC.

This rather inelegant title belies the institute’s dynamic role as a center for radical thinking in the 1960s. Initially conceived as another intercultural training center for priests, the CIDOC quickly became a clearing-house for a wide range of countercultural thinkers searching for alternatives to modern industrial society.

Back in America, Illich’s American successors in the Spanish-speaking apostolate were stumbling toward a new form of Yankeefication under the rubric of “social justice.” Whereas Illich understood the the Fiesta de San Juan as an intrinsically political act by virtue of its ability to embody and display traditional Puerto Rican communal values, progressive-minded American priests (mis)understood the festival as a potential tool for political consciousness raising. The promiscuous mingling of the sacred and the secular, the essence of the spirit of carnival, soon came under attack. Monsignor Robert Fox, who assumed the position of Director of the Office of Spanish-American Catholic Action in 1963, sought to “free” the festival from its medieval “parochialism.”

Attempting to reach out to the broader Latino population, he changed the name of the event from the Fiesta de San Juan to the Fiesta de la Comunidad Hispaña. In the name of opening the Church to the world, he accepted federal government funds from the War on Poverty programs, thus barring religious figures from leadership positions in the festival.

Finally, Fox shifted the focus of the celebration from class harmony to class resentment, using the festival as an occasion to call attention to the economic subordination of Latinos in America. Fox was completely in tune with the best liberal-progressive thinking of the day—and completely out of touch with the Puerto Ricans under his pastoral care.

Puerto Rican Catholics resented being subsumed under the multinational category of Latino and shifted their loyalties toward the secular, nationalistic Puerto Rican Day Parade held on the first weekend of June. Fox’s social justice agenda could never quite shake the assumption of the need for racial uplift, and his new model festival seemed too dour an affair to attract non?Puerto Rican Latinos, who expected something called a festival to be, well, festive.

Fox’s tenure in the Puerto Rican apostolate appears in retrospect a classic melodrama of middle-class alienation, with an intellectual trying to connect to a vision of “the people” that merely reflected the idealized self-image of the intellectual.

This psychodrama has been routinized and industrialized through the variety of academic programs of multiculturalism, which in turn shape the national education agenda from high school down to preschool. Such an intellectual dynamic effectively forestalls the possibility of the kind of fruitful engagement with tradition that initially inspired Illich to revive the Fiesta de San Juan.

Fox’s work with Puerto Ricans did have one redeeming moment worthy of Illich’s original vision. In 1967, a riot broke out in Spanish Harlem following a police shooting of an unarmed Puerto Rican man. As night fell, Mayor John Lindsay pleaded with people to stay off the streets. Reasoning that such a course of action would only leave the streets open to the most violent in the community, Fox instead organized a night-time peace procession in which he led Puerto Rican Catholics in the recitation of the rosary.

The presence of the rosary procession was enough to keep the peace through the night and restore order to the community. The lesson, of course, is that Fox finally succeeded in inspiring action for social justice only after appealing to an indigenous Puerto Rican— and Catholic—tradition not explicitly related to modern conceptions of “social justice.”

Fox’s rosary procession did not put an end to police shootings of poor minorities, but then again, neither have more conventional or “practical” programs of social protest. By the standard of effectiveness, few programs of protest can claim more than a mixed record. Regardless of their ability to affect tangible social change, the rosary and the Fiesta de San Juan connect people to a mythic story capable of unifying them in the face of life’s failures and disappointments.

In his 1971 work De-Schooling Society, Illich argued that the political options available to modern men and women were less a choice between reason and myth (or, in other words, secular rationality and religious ritual) than they were a choice between two contrasting myths, that of Epimetheus and Prometheus, which he saw as standing for two contrasting principles, hope and expectation:

Hope … means trusting faith in the goodness of nature, while expectation … means reliance on results which are planned and controlled by man. Hope centers desire on a person from whom we await a gift. Expectation looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable process which will produce what we have the right to claim. The Promethean ethos has now eclipsed hope. Survival of the human race depends on its rediscovery as a social force.

True believers in Prometheus would do well to recall that he spends eternity chained in irons forged by the very fire he thought would liberate mankind. Unlike so many others, Ivan Illich was not taken in by the Promethean myth in any of its political versions. That is why his politics of carnival continues to merit our attention and respect.

[This article originally appeared in The New Pantagruel.]

About the Author
Christopher Shannon is Associate Professor of History at Christendom College in Front Royal, Virginia. He is the author of several works, including Conspicuous Criticism: Tradition, the Individual and Culture in Modern American Social Thought (Johns Hopkins 1996; University of Scranton, 2010) and A World Made Safe for Differences: Cold War Intellectuals and the Politics of Identity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001). For a more extended treatment of Ivan Illich, see his "The Politics of Suffering: Ivan Illich's Critique of Modern Medicine" in Wilfred McClay, ed., Figures in the Carpet: Searching for the Human Person in American History (Eerdmans, 2007).