July 6, 2003

Class and Culture

Category: Anthropology — Biella @ 2:39 pm

The relationship between class and culture is a perplexing one. Ever since our already questionable car almost blew up while driving last week, we have been using public transportation everywhere here in Puerto Rico. Given that this is a car-loving island where public transportation exists but is definitely not “easy,” those with cars and those without cars mark the haves from have-nots (though there are plenty of working class and poor people with cars too). But really if you are using public transportation on the island, you probably don’t have all that much money. Most people here who have cars have probably never or rarely taken a bus or one of the city to city vehicles, a publico. Traveling on them and hearing the conversation gives you a sense of what people of different classes struggle and deal with. News about social security, the island-wide health plan, medicaid and all are ample on the busses. Running errands, shopping, and just general getting around takes quite a long time. You see lots of elderly people and mothers with kids. Life is easier with public transportation but it is still hard.
Riding the busses which is so class based here as it is in many places in the states, made me think about what it is that let’s say an upper middle class Puerto Rican shares with a lower/working class Puerto Rican. On the one hand so much about the music, certain values, and food are similar yet life experience given the differences that money affords in the realm of security, commodities, transportation, housing, and education seems so vast that cultural similarities pale in comparison to class difference.

But along a similar axis, do folks from a certain class (let’s say working class) from one cultural region share more with the upper class of their own region or with the same class of an entirely different region? It is hard to answer. Marxists of course would love it if class was more important than culture, but culture plays such a strong role in class experience (foods, music, values, religion) that there seems to be a lacuna of shared experiences of a class across culture.

So within the same society, class divides yet across societies it seems more like culture divides. Although it is certainly relative. Places where class divide is not as strong, perhaps cultural affinity is stronger whereas moments of great class divide are moments of trans-cultural and national unity.

These questions are not easily answered but it is remarkable how stepping onto a bus alone is stepping into another socio-cultural realm.

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